Monthly Archives: December 2016

How to Make Your Story Believable

Believable Characters

The utterly believable Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot

How do you make the characters in your films and novels believable?

In his book, Film Scriptwriting: A Practical Manual, Dwight V. Swain offers us two principles that underpin verisimilitude in stories – justification for everything that happens in the tale and a proportional response from the character to the events that confront him.

Believable Characters

Justification boils down to the readers and audiences believing that given a specific personality type, a character would react to a challenge, to any sort of stimulus really, precisely in the way that he does. In short, if your readers understand why your character acts in a specific way, they will experience his actions as believable and appropriate.

But it is also important to render a character’s actions in proportion to the stimulus that initiates them.

Exaggerated, unmotivated behaviour, under normal circumstances, can spoil a scene. If a girl turns down a casual request for a date from a man she hardly knows and he then proceeds to burst into tears, his behavior would be considered an overreaction.

If, on the other hand, a child were to run into a room, screaming and bleeding, and her mother were to ignore her in order to finish her bridge game, we would consider her behaviour as an underreaction.

Over and under reactions are major flaws that undermine believability in stories.

In Some Like It Hot, the director, Billy Wilder, was asked why he opened the film with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. He explained that he needed to provide the audience with a powerful reason why the two musicians, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, would dress up in girls’ clothes (used to generate the many priceless moments in the film). Their need to hide their identities from the mob makes their behaviour credible.

Summary

A character’s actions will be believable if they are justifiable and proportional to the event that initiates them.

The Four Functions of Good Dialogue

The functions of dialogueMUCH has been written about how dialogue functions in screenplays and novels.

But its role in storytelling is so central that there is always room for more discussion. Here is Dwight V Swain on the subject taken from his book, Film Scriptwriting – a Practical Manual.

The Functions of Dialogue

Dialogue, he informs us, performs four functions: It provides information, reveals emotion, advances the plot and exposes character.

Information: This seems straight forward enough. Tell the audience what they need to know to follow the story. The catch is that the writer should do so without being obvious or slowing down the forward thrust of the tale.

A good example of providing necessary information while maintaining the tension occurs at the start of Inglorious Basterds where a Nazi officer interviews the French farmer concerning the whereabouts of a missing Jewish family in the area – a family that the farmer is secretly sheltering under the very floorboards where the interview is taking place!

Emotion: Whenever possible, dialogue should also reveal emotion. Failure to do so makes for boring lines. In the above mentioned example, each line uttered by the Nazi officer in the scene serves to heighten the stakes for the farmer and his family since discovering the Jews under the floorboards will surely lead to everyone’s execution.

Plot: Additionally dialogue should advance the plot, but it should do so surreptitiously so that it does not expose its purpose. Initially, it seems that the Nazi officer is merely questioning the French farmer and will leave at the end of the interview. But as the questioning continues it becomes clear that the Nazi already has the answers and is merely prolonging the process to the torment of the farmer and his family.

Character: Lastly, dialogue should characterise the speaker and the person to whom it is directed. The Nazi officer, seems, at first, to be cultured and polite. The interview initially seems more of a conversation between friends than an interrogation. The farmer, although reticent, is encouraged to participate in the exchanges. But the niceties are only superficial – part of the cat-and-mouse game that the german is playing with the farmer. This characterises him as a sadistic tormentor and the farmer and his family as helpless, passive victims.

Working in unison, then, these functions make for effective and engrossing dialogue – a boon to any storytelling toolkit.

Summary

Good dialogue performs four functions – it provides information, exposes emotion, advances the plot and reveals character.

Conflict through Dilemma in Novels and Screenplays

DilemmaWHAT sort of choice or dilemma makes for the best dramatic conflict in stories?

In his seminal book, Story, Robert McKee reminds us that the choice between good and evil or between right and wrong is not a choice at all. It might generate conflict at the level of the plot between the protagonist and his world, but this conflict is two dimensional.

Conflict Through Dilemma

McKee illustrates the point by asserting that Attila the Hun would never be conflicted about invading, murdering, plundering. It is, after all, why he led his armies across two continents. He has no choice but to act in the way he does. It is only in the eyes of his victims that he is seen as evil.

In order to generate conflict within the character, as well as between him and those who oppose him – to make the conflict three dimensional – the character must experience a dilemma.

In the supernatural romance, Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, for example Dona faces a choice between a new husband who’s warm, secure, faithful but dull, and her old one who’s exciting, sexy, but dead – although he appears to her in the flesh and as insatiable as ever. She is caught between choosing a boringly safe life versus a mad, macabre, but emotionally exciting one.

In my bestselling first novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler has to choose between two conflicting scenarios. In a world that has been reset to eliminate the death of the woman he loves, he can declare his love for her once more, but risk the possibility, no matter how remote, of recycling the events that led to her death. Or he can keep his feelings for her a secret and eliminate any possibility of a risk. His uncertainty makes his choice a hard one, since there is no evidence to suggest that telling her he loves her would endanger her life at all. That is the nature of a dilemma – no clear choice.

Placing your protagonist in a dilemma, then, is a powerful dramatic technique that not only drives the plot forward, but makes the character’s actions unpredictable and engrossing.

Summary

Placing your protagonist in a dilemma generates inner conflict that escalates the tensions between himself and other characters in the story.

Writing Advice from Strunk and White

Writing adviceCONTINUING to mine Strunk and White’s, Elements of Style for writing advice, we learn that we should avoid verbosity and put statements in a positive form. That is, we should make finite assertions that avoid hesitant, ambiguous language – except when hesitancy and ambiguity are the intention.

So, “He usually came late,” instead of “He was not very often on time,” and “He thought the study of Latin a waste of time,” rather than “He did not think that studying Latin was a sensible way to use one’s time.”

Lastly, “The women in The Taming of the Shrew are unattractive. Katherine is disagreeable, Bianca insignificant,” not “The Taming of the Shrew is rather weak in spots. Shakespeare does not portray Katherine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare’s works.”

All three examples expose the weakness in wordiness that specifically flows from the use of the word “not”. Readers form a clearer, more vivid impression from a succinct description of what a thing is, rather than waffling about what it is not.

Not honest is better expressed as dishonest. Not importanttrifling. Did not rememberforgot.

You get the idea.

Here is a passage taken from The Nostalgia of Time Travel that illustrates how concrete language, sparse in its use of negatives, can catapult the reader into the world of a character – even when the character is unsure of what he is witnessing:

“Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse something small and white stuffed in between the branches of a jasmine bush at the bottom of the garden. A bird, perhaps, seeking shelter from the approaching cataclysm?

I winch myself up from the deckchair and trundle down the stairs. I wade through the garden and reach the spot. It is not a bird. It is a piece of cloth. A white handkerchief. I disentangle it from the branches, unfold it in my hands. There is a large “M” stitched in pink on the bottom right-hand corner. I press it to my face. The scent is unmistakable. This is Miranda’s handkerchief. It belongs to a set I had tailor-made for her as a gift. I’ve kept it in a shoebox alongside several other of Miranda’s personal items — a hair-clip, a broach, some letters we wrote to each other. I hardly ever open the box anymore. The encounter with the objects is too painful…”

In writing a story about nostalgia and regret I knew that I had to avoid using overly sentimental, indistinct language. I charged my sentences with punchy nouns and verbs as a safeguard.

Summary

Avoid using the negative case in your writing. Tell us what a thing is rather than what it is not. Do so with suitable nouns and verbs.