Category Archives: Creating Anticipation in Dialogue

Five ways to make your novel a page-turner!

Captivating Language

The Captivating Language of Jen Stanford
The Captivating Language of Jen Stanford

In order to deploy captivating language, Strunk and White (Elements of Style), admonish us to avoid verbosity and present sentences in a positive form—that is, to avoid hesitant, ambiguous language—except when hesitancy and ambiguity are the intention.

Write, “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.” 

Write, “The women in The Taming of the Shrew are unattractive. Katherine is disagreeable, Bianca insignificant.” This is preferable to: “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.”

These examples expose the weakness of negation. 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 dishonestNot important = triflingDid not remember = forgot

You get the idea.

This passage from Jen Stafford’s short story, In The Zoo, is a testament to the power of captivating language.

‘[…] Daisy and I in time found asylum in a small menagerie down by the railroad tracks. It belonged to a gentle alcoholic ne’-er-do-well, who did nothing all day long but drink bathtub gin in rickeys and play solitaire and smile to himself and talk to animals. He had a little stunted vixen and a deodorized skunk, a parrot from Tahiti that spoke French, a woebegone coyote, and two capuchin monkeys, so serious and humanized, so small and sad and sweet, and so religious-looking with their tonsured heads that it was impossible not to think their gibberish was really an ordered language with a grammar that someday some philologist would understand.’

Here, the language is so concrete, so evocative and direct, that it catapults us into the scene. We see what the character sees, smell what she smells, hear what she hears. We would do well to emulate this in our own writing.

Summary

Use captivating language to drive your novels and screenplays. Tell us what a thing is rather than what it is not and do so directly, concretely and precisely.

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What Motivates the Protagonist?

Fear motivates the protagonist, Grace Stewart, to stay locked up in her house for the duration of the story.
Fear motivates the protagonist, Grace Stewart, to stay locked up in her house for the duration of the story.

What motivates the protagonist in your story? The very character that ought to be relentlessly driven?

In The Others, Grace Stewart wants to keep her children and herself safe in their large house until her husband returns from the war. She keeps the curtains drawn and the doors locked, never venturing outside. But strange things keep happening. Doors are heard opening and closing. Curtains are being pulled open. Strange voices are heard.

In The Land Below, Paulie is determined to reach the surface in search of freedom. In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin is obsessed with solving an intractable mathematical equation. Jack’s desire in Scarab, is to undo Emma’s death. Often, clear and conscious desires are enough to drive the story forward.

But truly good stories do not only pit the protagonist against external obstacles. Good stories pit the external against the internal.

“What motivates the protagonist is the conflict between her want and her need, a conflict she doesn’t acknowledge until the end of the story.”

Stories achieve this by hiding a need in the protagonist that is at odds with the want that lies on the conscious level. Think of the protagonist having a conscious desire as his want, and an unconscious requirement for happiness as his need. What drives the drama is the conflict between the two. This conflict is resolved only when the protagonist comes to realise that his need, not his want, is his true goal. Indeed, it is this very recognition that proves that the character has grown and is ready to move on.

In The Others, Grace needs to discover the metaphysical truth about herself and her children. Only then can she identify her true goal.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin is able to move on from a life of regret and stasis only when he realises that his salvation lies not through mathematical solutions to impossible problems but in forgiving himself. In Scarab, Jack is able to save the woman he loves only through sacrifice – by walking away from the relationship he so desperately desires. 

Stories, driven by the tension between what the protagonist wants and what he needs, fascinate, deepening the tale.

Summary

Good stories are driven by the tension between what the protagonist wants and what he needs.

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How to start a story – questions and answers

Useful tips on how to start a story.
Useful tips on how to start a story.

One way to start a story quickly is to know your characters.

In his chapter titled, Developing your Character – Defining Trait, in The Dramatic Writer’s Companion, Will Dunne explains that one way to do this is to interrogate your characters off the bat. Sit your characters down in your mind’s eye and ask them a series of telling questions.

Ask the character: What makes you truly angry? Then follow it up with: Can you trace this anger to a past incident, perhaps in your childhood?

Continue with: What do you fear the most? Can you think of when you first felt it?

Balance it with a more positive emotion: Who/what do you love deeply and irresistibly? What would you do to have that love returned, or, if an object, acquired?

“Start a story by interrogating your characters as a first step. Ask the character(s) questions related to strong emotions. Use the answers you receive to fashion characters and story beats.”

Having gotten answers to these questions ask yourself: How do these emotions manifest in a dominant trait in the character? Does the trait originate from a physical ‘wound’—such as a limp or a speech defect? A sociological wound arising from a character having being demeaned or ridiculed because of her poverty or social standing? A psychological wound stemming from child-abuse or the like?

Lastly, try to project the dominant trait onto the story’s outer journey—the plot. Is the persuit of the goal the character’s attempt to heal the wound?

This process might not seem like much, but in truth, it forms the basis of good story preparation. Give it a try.

Summary

A quick way to start a story is to interrogate your characters in a way that reveals three key emotions—anger, fear, and love.

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Constructing characters – who, what, how, and why?

The Spire, a masterful study in constructing characters.
The Spire, a masterful study in constructing characters.

As writers we are constantly engaged in constructing characters who hurt, desire and dream. We try to imbue them with deep passions and a need to achieve their goals at any cost. We try to write characters who are complex, multi-layered.

But how do we achieve this, practically? In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Dr. Linda Seger suggests that we start by asking the following questions: Who is the character? What does the character want? Why does the character want it? How does the character get it?

One way to discover a character’s personality is to interrogate her.

Who is the the character? Is she shy, reclusive? Happy-go-lucky or introverted? Reliable and honest?

What does she want and how far will she go to get it? This is the external aspect of character – one tied to the external goal.

Why is the character driven? What is the psychology behind the need?

How does she get what she want? Is she a ruthless go-getter who stops at nothing – persuading, threatening, manipulating, or does she achieve her goals through kindness, by example, through wisdom and intelligence?

“A key to constructing characters is to ask questions that drill down to the defining aspects of identity and personality.”

In The Spire, (who) Jocelin, Dean of the Cathedral, (what) is obsessed with erecting a 404 foot tall spire (why) because he believes he has been chosen for this task to bring the people of the town closer to God. The project (how) is funded by his aunt, Lady Alison, a mistress  of the former King. But Jocelin’s plans fly against the advice of many, especially the master builder, Roger Mason, who believes the cathedral’s foundation cannot take the added weight. As the novel unfolds we learn that the project has more to do with Jocelin’s unyielding will than his desire to exalt his people by glorifying God through the building of the spire.

Characters are also aided or impeded by their values – their sense of justice, love, compassion, the belief that reconciliation is the only way to meet death without regret. A sympathetic character’s values will always be positive. 

But antagonists too believe they have values. The difference is that their view is subjective. A typical protagonist, by contrast, displays a more objective value system shared by the reader or audience. Interestingly, we get the most out of our characters by creating tension between their obsession and their value system. This is because inner conflict makes for absorbing stories. 

Summary

Ask the who, what, how, and why questions before embarking on constructing characters. The answers will help you write a more convincing story.

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The inner life of characters in stories

The book teaches how to craft the inner life of a character.
The book teaches how to craft the inner life of a character.

We’ve all heard that dialogue should not be direct – that it should hint at the inner life, the emotions, attitudes, grudges, and wounds beneath the surface layer of speech, rather than merely convey information. But how do we achieve this in our writing?


In a previous article I talked about ‘dactions’ – that’s my word for combining language with gestures and actions to enhance meaning. Here is an example taken from Deborah Harverson’s chapter in Crafting Dynamic Dialogue (Writer’s Digest Books):

“Aren’t you thoughtful?” She took the rose he’d handed her and walked to the sink where she kept her vase. Two other roses rested in it, one from the week before, wilting slightly. Both were peach, matching the tight bud in her hand. He loved to give her flowers but dismissed red roses as cliché. “I stopped by Sue’s apartment today,” she said, turning on the water, her back to him. “She had a rose on her kitchen table.” She reached forward, past the running water, past the vase, to the switch on the wall. Resting her finger on it, she turned and smiled sweetly at him. He’d stopped in the doorway, one glove off, the other dangling from his fingers. He wasn’t tugging on it anymore. “A peach rose in a tall vase,” she said, “right there next to her violin.” She poked the bud’s stem into the garbage disposal then flicked the button. The grinder roared as it sucked the flower down, flecks of peach petal flicking free, but he heard her clearly: “You told me you hate musicians.” 

The inner life is key

Halverson notes that this is a deeply wounded woman whose pain manifests through quiet statements, the last one ‘making you cringe from the intensity of its delivery.’

The rose becomes the nexus for all sorts of emotions—love, betrayal, hurt. It is transformed into a symbol of infidelity. Rather than her directly accusing the man of infidelity through yelling and dish-throwing, she shreds the rose to convey her pain and anger.

One would do well to remember this advice. Subtext, combined with small, telling actions reveals the inner life of a character, delivers more punch, without melodrama or direct violence. Anger passes; a calculated response suggests an unsettling resolve that may be far more damaging and permanent.

Exercise: Locate a passage in your own work where two or more people are at loggerheads. Have one character respond in a way that suggests resolve rather than rage.

Summary

Combining gestures with a calm response to a situation can paradoxically generate stronger emotions that reveal the inner life of the characters.

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Your writing – how to improve it

Stephen King‘s It—genre writing at its best.
Stephen King—genre writing at its best.

Accomplished writing is rooted in social and psychological awareness, perseverance, technical expertise, passion, talent and luck.

There’s little you can do about luck, but there is plenty you can do to make your writing so accomplished that it can‘t be ignored.

Firstly, believe that you can and will improve as a writer if you work on your weaknesses. Writing is a craft, much like painting, woodwork or dressmaking. Practicing the skills and techniques that go into it yields results.

Although there is almost as much advice on writing as there are people offering it, I believe that a writer’s development will benefit through study in four areas: 

1. A passionate and genuine interest in people—the ins and outs of human motivation, their hopes and fears.

2. An understanding of story structure—how the parts of the story engine work together to deliver an emotive experience to the audience or reader.

3. The ability to identify and deploy abstract ideas such as morality and ideology and distill them into specific themes, characters, and events in a way that makes your stories meaningful and appealing.

4. The development of a distinctive voice that reflects a unique style.

“Apply to your writing knowledge from the four areas of focus.“

Having identified these areas, take time each day to observe how people interact with each other—at social gatherings, cafes and shopping centres. What clues do they offer through their posture, tone of voice, and general demeanour?

Read an article on some aspect of narrative structure from a book or website every day. Can you describe the function of the inciting incident? Its relation to the first turning point? Learn something new every day.

Can you identify the warring ideologies of the day? Unfortunately, the world is bristling with strife, now more then ever, so it shouldn’t be that hard. How would you package these ideologies into characters that tell a powerful and dramatic story?

Which authors and screenwriters do you admire? Stephen King? Margaret Atwood? Aaron Sorkin? David Mamet? All have a distinctive voice revealed through their use of theme and genre, as well as sentence structure, word choice and the speech patterns of their characters. What are the patterns in your writing?

Work to perfect them.

Summary

Identify and rectify weaknesses in your writing by focusing on the relevant categories of knowledge.

Who is the Viewpoint Character in your story?

Nick Carraway as the viewpoint character in The Great Gatsby
Nick Carraway as the viewpoint character in The Great Gatsby

Stories are inhabited by many characters, each exploring the theme from a different perspective; only one, however, is the viewpoint character.

All characters exhibit a point of view, of course. And, indeed, one of the functions of a character archetype is to offer a glimpse of the moral premise as seen from a specific perspective. Typically, the hero, or protagonist, being the character through whom we most often experience the story, is one whose moral vision carries significant weight—certainly by the end of the story where maturation has occurred.

Sometimes, however, the hero is not the viewpoint character. The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway is a case in point. The plot does indeed revolve around Gatsby, but it is Nick Carraway who not only relates events from his point of view, but also transmits the moral perspective of the entire story.

It is important to identify the viewpoint character prior to commencing the writing of the story. Start by asking the following questions:

1. Which character is closest to my (the writer’s) point of view? Whose clear, moral perspective pronounces the theme of the story? In The Great Gatsby, Nick is this character—although the pronouncement is about Gatsby himself.

“A viewpoint character transmits the moral perspective of the story.“

2. Who has the biggest stake in the story and has the most to lose? Who cares most passionately about solving the story-problem? Your answers will point towards your point of view character(s). 

In The Land Below, Paulie, the protagonist, is the character with the biggest responsibility and with the most to lose, but the Troubadour offers the deepest moral perspective in the story—despite the secret he has kept from Paulie all these years.

2. Which characters are the most interesting or the most intriguing? These are the characters the reader or audience wants to know most about.

3. Which of the characters are most involved in driving the story forward? Passive characters are the least interesting and tend to slow the story down.

4. Which characters are the most complicated? Complex characters hold our attention through their unpredictability, complexity and depth. In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos is such a character—we are uncertain whether he will choose to live or die by the end of the story. 

Summary

Create a viewpoint character by granting that character the moral perspective of the story.

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.