Category Archives: Creating Anticipation in Dialogue

Five ways to make your novel a page-turner!

Gripping stories — How to Write Them

Homeland is one of the most gripping stories in recent times.
Homeland is one of the most gripping stories in recent times.

Gripping stories are a cloth woven out of the yarn of surprise. Surprises can be big or small. At the very least, they are unexpected but fitting events imposed on a character from the outside, or from inner pressures stemming from a character’s own values and fears.

Surprise is the antidote to boredom and the enemy of predictability. A fitting surprise is one that catches us unawares, but is perfectly authentic, soliciting an “I should have seen it coming” response.

“Gripping stories continually thwart our expectations through surprise and keep us engaged through suspense.”

Homeland, Season 8, (spoiler alert) contains a fine example of this technique—a series of twists woven together to form a substantial part of the story: Carrie has been instructed to try and retrieve the black box from the downed helicopter carrying the American and Afghan presidents. If the black box proves that the helicopter went down due to mechanical failure, rather than a Taliban rocket, a war between the United States and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, can be averted.

With US fighter planes closing in to bomb the site, Carrie Mathison instructs Max, who is part of a small ground force dispatched to investigate the crash, to try and acquire the black box from the helicopter. Max manages to do so, but (twist) Taliban fighters close in and pin him and his team down. When it looks like Max might get away with the device, he is captured by a lone Taliban soldier (twist), then shot trying to escape. He is taken to a house deep in Taliban country and tied to a steel bed.

“Gripping stories are by their very nature unpredictable.”

Carrie solicits the help of Yevgeny, a Russian agent with whom she has a complicated relationship, and manages to track Max down (twist), but the black box has been removed by his captors (twist). Together with Yevgeny, Carrie tracks the device down to an electronics chop-shop and pays the broker who has the item one million dollars for it. She manages to read enough information from the device to know that the helicopter crash was indeed due to mechanical failure. She and Yevgeny kiss and agree to work together in the future (twist). Carrie is about to leave with the black box when Yevgeny betrays her. He injects her with an anaesthetic and steals the device from her (twist).

“Another way to define surprise is as a sudden turn from the ostensible direction of the narrative.“

The main feature about these dramatic beats is their unpredictability. Although the goal remains the same—to find and return the black box to the United States and so avert a war with Pakistan—each new and surprising obstacle blocks the straight line to the goal and forces it to change direction. The result is a narrative that grips our attention.

Summary

Gripping stories unexpectedly turn reader and viewer expectations in ways that keep the narrative filled with suspense.

Television Series Bible checklist

TV Series Bible - stranger things
The Television Series Bible was essential in getting a show like Stranger Things off the ground

A Television Series Bible is a marketing document containing an outline for a new television series. It has to inform, entertain and captivate the reader if it is to have a chance of going into actual production. Here are some pointers.

  1. Do you have a strong concept, preferably a high concept, upon which your series is based? Remember that the series bible is a pitching document. It must capture the producers’ imagination and engage their emotions from the get-go. What if someone had pitched Jurassic Park as a tv series back in the day? I can’t think of a studio not snapping it up.
  2. Have you included a crisp logline for the show, and a captivating one-page pitch—essentially a synopsis of the series—that establishes the story world, goal, theme and tone of the show? The set-up logline for Breaking Bad might be: When a docile,  cash-strapped chemistry teacher is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he starts cooking meth to provide for his family with the intention of stopping when he has accrued enough cash. But pride and ambition result in a change of plans.
  3. Does each season have a clear season question that is answered only at the end of that season? Does the entire series have a series question that is answered only at the end of the series? The season and series questions are compasses that guide each episode as it marches towards answering those very questions. For example, in Gotham, one season question might be: Who will win the hoodlum war amongst the rival gangs? The series question might be, will Bruce Wayne survive to become the Batman—and in what shape or form?
  4. Have you included short character biographies and episode synopsis, as well as ‘snapshots’ of intriguing objects from each episode—a picture or sketch of a gothic, jewel-encrusted crucifix side-by-side a pair of long fangs, for example, may go a long way in capturing the glance of a producer. What about a blood-stained suicide note to a lover?
  5. Is your bible design germane to the subject matter? Is it attractive to the eye? Textured backgrounds with lots of sketches are fitting for period or fantasy pieces. Neon colours and backgrounds are more appropriate for science fiction.
  6. Have you made clear in the character biographies what’s at stake for the important characters, both internally and externally? In other words, do we know what the protagonist’s goal is? Do we know why the antagonist, or, antagonistic forces, oppose this goal? And importantly, do we know what shortfall the protagonist has to make up in terms of a secret, a wound, and/or a moral or physical flaw, in order to achieve the goal? The character’s developmental arc is tied up with the plot arc. Both have to be conceived as two sides of the same coin.
  7. Have you included a short synopsis of a second and third season? You need to show producers that your series has legs. Hence the importance of the series question. In Breaking Bad, the series question is: Can Walter White survive his cancer, ruthlessness and greed? Showing how you intend to develop your series is an important aspect on whether your series will be picked up or not.

“Television series bibles vary in style and content. The thing that makes the best bibles stand out is precisely an element of uniqueness rooted in their design style and subject matter.”

Summary

Making sure that your television series bible addresses most of these pointers will go some way in giving your pitch a chance of being noticed by producers.

Repetition versus Repetitiveness in Stories

Repetition in dialogue or action in films and novels is tedious and redundant if it is experienced as repetitive.

Repetition in Unforgiven
In Unforgiven, William Manny’s reputation as a ruthless killer is enhanced through repetition.

In his book, Screenwriting, Richard Walters uses the film, Yentle, to illustrate this point. The film starts with a prologue informing us that in the Eastern Europe of the time, education was meant for men only. Moments later, a bookseller rides a cart through the streets advertising “scholarly books for men! Romantic novels for women!” 

When Yentle gets to town she peruses the bookseller’s books, studying a scholarly tome in particular. Upon seeing this, the bookseller snatches the book from her and reminds her that such books are meant for men only. She should seek out romantic books instead.

This sort of repetition is condescending, implying that we are incapable of getting the point the first time around. 

Repetition is acceptable, but only if it is not repetitive. This is not as contradictory as it sounds.

“Repetition of known information is acceptable only when used for emphasis.”

In Rashomon, four observers relate the same event. Here, however, each version differs in the detail, adding a unique and intriguing quality to the recounting. This is an exceptional use of a technique that examines the nature of human perception and truth.

Summary

In Unforgiven, we learn that the sheriff, Little Bill, is a tough antagonist to Clint Eastwood’s William Manny. To elevate the stature of the sheriff, the writer has a deputy emphasise his toughness by assuring the others that Little Bill is scared of no one, having survived a tough education in the mean streets of Kansas. This adds to Little Bill’s ruthless reputation, rather than being a mere repetition of information.

Repetition of information already provided to an audience or reader is condescending and unnecessary, except when it is specifically used for emphasis.

Exposition—how to write it

American Graffiti’s use of exposition is nothing short of masterful.
American Graffiti’s use of exposition is nothing short of masterful.


Exposition is a necessary part of any story. We must know certain facts about a character or event in order to make sense of the unfolding narrative. But an unskillful use of exposition can also slow the momentum of the story.

In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA gives several examples of good and bad exposition.

In Stand by Me, Richard Dreyfuss, a writer, relates past events in voice-over narration. This is a quick and cheap way to bring the viewer up to speed. But the scene is too static—boring.

In American Graffiti, a radio dial and catchy music immediately establish the time, place, and mood of the story. We learn through quick exchanges that Howard and Dreyfuss are planing to leave town in the morning. The setup occurs without lengthy diversions.

“In Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino brilliantly weaves exposition into the forward thrust of the story. A Nazi officer interrogates a French farmer who is hiding a Jewish family under the very floorboards where the interrogation is taking place.”

In Silver Bears, several old mafiosi in bathrobes march down a plush corridor situated high above Las Vegas. They enter an enormous therapy pool and disrobe. Sucking on cigars they step into the water and discuss things you’d expect to hear a gangster boardroom scene. By portraying the gangsters as fat old men in a pool, Tarantino allows the exposition to slip in surreptitiously. 

In these examples, context, mood, and necessary information are indeed relayed through exposition. The first does it in a laborious and obvious way. It slows the action down and taxes the viewer. The next three do so more skillfully. They insert subtext in the setting and dialogue to keep the audience engaged. 

Summary

Load exposition with subtext or make it part of the forward thrust of the story.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, leave a comment and let’s get chatting.


Deep Character Motivation in Stories

Character motivation in the film Speed
Deep Character motivation in Speed arises from a devastating physical threat

Much has been written on the importance of deep character motivation and development in stories, and rightly so. An engaging and convincing character is one of the most important elements in the well-crafted story.

It follows that what motivates character action is equally important. Readers and audiences need to know and understand precisely why it is that a character acts in the way that he or she does. Outer actions or events are convincing only if they are a fitting response flowing from the personality and circumstance.

Two Sides of Deep Character Motivation

In previous posts I’ve talked about the importance to a story of the inner and outer journeys of a character. If the outer journey describes the external movement of the tale (the “what”) the inner journey describes and explains the inner movement (the “why”).

Although the two seem ostensibly different, they are inexorably bound together. They entail each other. Another way to see motivation, then, is as having an inner and outer dimension.

Outer motivation operates at the level of the external goal. Here, a series of external events elicit actions from your characters. In the movie, Speed, for example, Officer Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) has to keep the bus moving at a certain speed to ensure that a bomb inside it doesn’t go off.

The reason why someone would risk one’s life to try and prevent this from happening, however, goes beyond external reasons—one’s job. It speaks to one’s moral makeup, compassion, and commitment to others, and perhaps to one’s need for excitement. It cuts to the core of Jack Traven’s character. 

Deep Character Motivation Quiz

In seeking to nail down your character’s motivation, it is helpful to ask yourself the following questions:

What is your character’s outer goal?
What is your character’s inner motivation (conscious or unconscious) for pursuing this goal?
What is your character willing to do/sacrifice to achieve this goal?
How does the goal change during the story, and how does this affect your character?
Is what is at stake for the character the highest it can be? (Higher stakes make for better stories).

Although these are by no means the only questions to be asked about character, they are a good way of sketching in the overall shape of the character arc. They also draw attention to the “what” (outer) and “why” (inner) aspects of your character’s actions—a requirement of any good story.

In Summary

Character Motivation is an essential part of effective storytelling. The outer goal is directly related to your character’s inner life and is motivated by its core concerns. 

Inspiration in Stories

Inspiration in Scarab 2
Inspiration came unexpectedly during the writing of Scarab 2

Inspiration.

In this post I deviate from my usual exploration of specific writing techniques to ruminate about that elusive creature, the muse.

At its core, inspiration is about the relationship between plotting and pantsing, about planning versus spontaneity, about the relationship between the left and right hemispheres of our brains.

I believe that thinking about the plot is necessary prior to our commencing the first draft, especially in a screenplay where precision born out of planning favours the budget. But I also maintain that magic often comes unexpectedly. 

Certainly, knowledge of voice, structure, character, dialogue, pace, and the like—essentially left brain activities—is necessary during the editing of the drafts that follow. But can theoretical knowledge of the craft take the place of spontaneity, serendipity, and the efficacy of the muse—activities 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 practical knowledge (active skill) seamlessly and invisibly arises from the theoretical.

Inspiration is perhaps the clearest sign of the two hemispheres working together. Plotting and pantsing are not rival activities but co-conspirators in the craft of writing. 

In writing Scarab II: Reawakening, for example, I meticulously plotted the shape of the story, using my understanding of structure, before commencing the writing. Yet, perhaps the most interesting 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 unplanned and was as much of a surprise to me as I hope it is to the reader. This was a moment of inspiration that came from beyond conscious planning. 

My point is that large structural changes or additions stemming from some unexpected source can assail one at any time, and should be absorbed, if deemed fitting, during any stage of the writing process.

Summary

Inspiration often comes unexpectedly and might seem at odds with our original intention. Integrating it into our creative process, however, often makes for more original and inspired stories.

Hollywood Story Structure

Hollywood story structure
The Hollywood story structure promotes the commercial value of a story

A hollywood story: I’m a big fan of story structure, especially the structure of stories intended for a commercial audience, and nobody does commercial better (or worse – when it misfires) than Hollywood

As I have noted before, when thinking about a commercial story, I sometimes lay out the skeleton of a tale before commencing the writing itself. At other times I have the structure tucked away in my mind, so that I am only subliminally aware of it. Yet, its presence, in some magical way, guides my hand.

But what is story structure anyway? And how should one go about learning its secrets? 

There are many books and articles written on the subject, including many on this site, drawn from a wide range of respected sources. One can hone in on the details, and study the workings of the inciting incident, the first and second pinch, the first and second turning point, the midpoint, the climax, and the resolution, and certainly, one would be more enlightened for it.

But sometimes, I prefer to talk about structure, especially to those who are just embarking on their writing journey, in a more accessible, common sense way.

The Hollywood Structure in a Nutshell

I have come across many descriptions that capture the essence of a good conventional tale, (I sometimes refer to such a story as a Hollywood story), but here, for its brevity and simplicity, is one of my favorites. I quote from Scott Meredith’s book, Writing to Sell:

“A sympathetic lead character finds himself in trouble of some kind and makes active efforts to get himself out of it. Each effort, however, merely gets him deeper into his trouble, and each new obstacle in his path is larger than the last. Finally, when things look blackest and it seems certain the lead character is finished, he manages to get out of his trouble through his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity.”

Much can be learnt by thinking carefully about several key words in this passage: sympathetic lead, trouble, active efforts, deeper into his troubles, larger than the last, blackest, finished, out of trouble though his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity. Each contains important kernels of insight that helps make for a successful story.

For us to care for the protagonist, for example, he must be sympathetic. We wouldn’t give much of a damn for Hitler, now would we? 

For us to be drawn into the story itself, the character must also be in serious trouble. 

Further, this trouble can not remain static. That would render it boring. For us to stay interested, the tension needs to increase and the problem needs to worsen.

You get the idea. 

Hollywood story structure, then, lays out a set of events involving a sympathetic character facing an almost insurmountable problem in a way that conspires to keep the audience engrossed in the story.

So there you have it. Three sentences, taken from Mr. Meredith, that sum up the structure of a commercially viable story to get you started on that next Hollywood screenplay.

Summary

Hollywood story structure refers to interconnected events about a sympathetic character facing problems that keep the audience engrossed in the story.

Winning Story from Winning Concept

Winning story - Forest Gump
Winning story – Forest Gump

Winning story

How do you come up with a winning concept that gives rise to a winning story? In other words, how do you take an idea and turn it into a concept that causes movie producers or book publishers to sit up and take notice?

Start with the Basic Idea. Let’s say you have an idea for a story that goes something like this:

A story about the dangers of DNA experimentation.

Or

A story about a psychopath who skins his victims alive.

Or

A story about a man who keeps ending up in extraordinary situations.

Put the ideas in a “What-if format”:

1. What if unregulated experimentation with the DNA structures goes wrong?

2. What if an ordinary man keeps ending up in extraordinary situations?

3. What if a psychopath, who skins his victims alive, keeps evading the police?

How modifiers make for winning stories

Modifiers are specific techniques used to trigger or inspire an improvement to the story idea. Listed below are some of the most important ones:

1. Take the idea to an extreme level.

2. Collide two opposites together.

3. Raise the stakes.

4. Make the environment unique.

5. Ensure you have the most appropriate main character.

6. Ensure you have special inter-character relationships.

7. Include a unique dilemma.

8. Ensure it has a powerful twist.

9. Change the sex, age, race, nationality, species.

10. Change the norm.

11. Ensure your plot includes a fascinating plan or strategy.

Here are three examples of modifiers used to create a winning story:

If we apply Modifier 1 to our first example, (what if unregulated experimentation with the DNA structures goes wrong), we might end up with a story about a theme-park full of prehistoric animals grown from the DNA acquired from the blood of mosquitos preserved in raisin—Jurassic Park.

Applying Modifier 2 to example 2 (what if an ordinary man keeps ending up in extraordinary situations), we could end up with a story about a simple-minded man who accidentally acquires wealth and becomes part of the most important political events of the 1960’s—Forrest Gump.

Applying Modifier 6 to example 3 (what if a psychopath, who skins his victims alive, keeps evading the police), might inspire us to come up with a story about a young female FBI agent who enlists the help of a brilliant cannibalistic psychiatrist who agrees to help her in exchange for playing mind-games with her—Silence of the Lambs.

As an exercise, try applying the remaining modifiers to some of your existing story ideas.

Summary

Taking an ordinary idea, putting it in a what-if format, and applying a modifier to it often strengthens the central concept and helps you write a winning story.

Perspective in Stories—how to choose it.


Perspective: The Cinderella Story
Perspective: The Cinderella Story

Do you write from the first person or third person perspective? Do you use an omniscient narrator or a flawed narrator who is a character in the story, like Nick Caraway in The Great Gatsby?

In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty, stresses that choosing your story’s perspective or viewpoint, is one of the first and most important decisions you make as storyteller. 

Your choice of perspective will not only affect the tone of your story, but the reader’s emotional response to it too.

A change of perspective can turn Jack and the Beanstalk into a tale about the home invasion of a sensitive, shy giant at the mercy of a rag-tag boy that has snuck into his home.

Additionally, a radical change of viewpoint can allow the writer to mine many existing and beloved stories, generating countless adaptations. The range and depth of digging into the treasure trove of past tales is almost limitless.

Just think: Cinderella, in a reimagined version, can become the sorry lot of an ugly sister, hopelessly outgunned and outshone by a shallow, foul-mouthed bimbo who can’t stop talking about her desire for fine clothes and the prince.

How about the changes in emotion that would occur in a story of adultery told through the adulterer’s eyes and then retold through the victim’s—as in The Postman Always Rings Twice? How would our sympathies shift through this approach?

Perspective favours the character who owns it, although it can also allow for characters who are filled with self-loathing or pity whom we tend to judge more critically. The point still stands: Choosing the right viewpoint is integral to the tone, theme, and the emotional commitment of your readers to your characters and story.

Summary

Choosing your story’s perspective is one of the first and most important decisions you make as a writer.

Taglines: Movie Posters and Book Covers

I recently had the privilege of delivering a series of lectures on how to create effective film loglines and taglines. Towards the end of the course I had the idea of warping things up by introducing a different approach to logline and tagline creation.

Taglines: The Level
Taglines: The Level

A logline, we are reminded, is the summation of the story, sans the ending, that introduces the main conflict, the protagonist and antagonist, and identifies that which must be learnt or acquired in order to fulfill the goal. 

Taglines, by contrast, are phrases or sentences that capture some essential aspect of the story—in Apollo 13, the tagline is: Huston, we have a problem.

The exercise I set my students during class, was to have them envisage the essence of a story, not through the written logline and tagline, as per usual, but by designing a poster or book cover instead.

I emphasised that it didn’t matter whether they were skilled artists or not. What was important was graphically to capture the spirit of the story. They could “paint” a word portrait and use stick and block drawings to fill in the gaps, if need be.

The exercise was a wonderful success and threw up many interesting renditions of the story. It also proved the point that the creative process works best when using a multidisciplinary approach.

In much the same way, the book cover of my novella, The Level, which is being developed into a feature film, captures an essential aspect of the story, and this, without giving too much away.

The book cover features an important object from the story in a dark but intriguing way, and encourages the reader to ask the question: What is the role of the electric chair in the tale?

The tagline, which also draws heavily from the title, might well be: Many Lives. Many Levels. Which Level Are You?

True to form, the cover was designed before the tagline was developed and helped inspire some of The Level’s many twists and turns.

Summary

Using an offbeat multidisciplinary approach in tackling creative techniques, such as writing taglines, promotes inspiration and encourages insight.