Tag Archives: novel

Lacklustre Scenes—how to fix them

Lacklustre scenes are scenes which almost work. Almost, but not quite. We’ve all written them at one time or another.

Eliminating lacklustre scenes—Before the Light book cover
Novellas such as Before the Light, are even less accommodating of lacklustre scenes, due to its length.

The subtext seems to be in place. The dialogue seems to be communicating the plot and revealing character. Yet, something seems amiss. The writing seems too unimaginative, too lacklustre.

In one of my recent classes a student presented me with several lacklustre scenes. She had a strong female character giving instructions, in her high-tech office, to a male employee about some top-secret project. Everything seemed in place, yet the scenes seemed stolid, dull. Something was definitely wrong.

The usual remedy in fixing lacklustre scenes is to change the location, or timing, or to prune on-the-nose dialogue, and, in more stubborn cases, to change or introduce a new character.

Luckily, here, a change of location did the trick. Instead of having the woman instruct her employee in her office, I suggested she does this in a hothouse while trimming exotic plants. That way each comment could be accentuated by a snip of her pruning clippers. This would immediately add a deeper layer of subtext to the scene.

The student thought about it and ultimately decided to move a couple of the lacklustre scenes to an aviary, which worked just as well. It allowed the warm tone of the setting to add an interesting spin to the dialogue. 

The result was an inspired scene that ticked all the boxes. Not only did the character’s actions grant an element of irony to the woman’s tough demeanour, the new environment lent visual variety and contrast, too.

Sometimes subtext, ordinarily a good thing, can be too subtle for its own good.

In my latest novella, Before the Light, I had a crucial scene in which the subtext, containing the meaning of the entire story, was too deeply burried. My editor pointed out that the reason why Icarus, the super quantum computer that holds the fate of the world in its brain, makes the choice that it does, was just too hidden for readers to see. Without such insight the scene felt limp. I had to rewrite it, keeping some of subtlety, but simultaneously leaving more clues for attentive readers to discover.

The scene immediately sprang to life. It became the punchline of the story.

Summary

Consider changing the location, timing, background action, or replace a character altogether to pump up stolid, lacklustre scenes.

How to Nail your Story Logline

So, you’ve written your literary masterpiece and posted it up on Amazon with a logline, book cover and description, which, in your opinion, is darned perfect.

The Level — logline
The Level — logline

But if your book is so great and your description so spot-on, why isn’t anyone buying it? You’ve promoted it, so you know readers know its there, but where are the sales?

There is a good chance that your logline—that short description at the top of your Amazon product page meant to set up your story in an intriguing and succinct way, falls short.

It may even suck altogether.

Finessing the Logline

In a logline containing a couple dozen or so words, each word weighs a ton. There is a limit to how much tonnage you can load up on the scale. You’ve got to ensure that each word is there because it makes an invaluable contribution to the overall sentence. Superfluous and ill-chosen words make for superfluous and ill-chosen loglines. If a word doesn’t contribute to tone or meaning, strike it from the sentence.

If your logline fails to hook your readers immediately they will drift over to another page in search of something better to read.

Brevity and precision aside, ask yourself whether your logline paints a picture of what your story is about and poses an intriguing question the reader is dying to have answered.

But there is another crucial thing a logline must do. It must play fair with the reader. Your book cover and logline are the promise you make your readers: Buy my book and you’ll get the sort of story I describe. Fail to do so, or change the genre halfway through the book, and you may disappoint or even anger them, with devastating results when they come to reviewing your book.

Don’t get me wrong. Readers love surprises. They hate predictability. But if you promise your readers a drama, don’t give them a satire. They’ll punish you for it.

The Level—logline

Upon first publishing my sci-fi/mystery/thriller, The Level, on Amazon, which currently is being developed into a feature film by the A-List Australian producer, G. Mac Brown, I offered the following description:

A man, suffering from amnesia wakes up in a pitch-black room, tied to what feels like a wooden chair. He discovers he is a prisoner in an abandoned, labyrinthine asylum hunted by shadowy figures out to kill him. An enchanting woman dressed in a black burka appears out of the darkness and offers to show him the way out, if only he can remember who he truly is. But the truth is more terrifying than anything anyone could have ever imagined.

The book did well, jumping to number 22 on the Amazon top 100 Bestseller list in its category. But a chat with a fellow writer drew my attention to the possibility that my description was missing a vital ingredient: the scifi/technothriller element. In fact, as it stood, the cover and logline screamed: Horror genre! And while there are strong thriller/horror elements in the story, I realised I wasn’t playing fair with my readers.

So, I reworked my logline and came up with the following:

A man with no memory hunted down the twisted corridors of a derelict asylum by murderous figures…

A computer programmer desperate to eliminate a flaw in her code before the software is released to an unsuspecting public…

Two lives bound together by a terrifying secret.

This logline has the elements of the previous one, but adds technology to the broth — a huge part of the story. It plays fair with the reader.

Summary

Using precise, economic language, posing an intriguing question, and playing fair with the reader in terms of genre are some of the most important elements in crafting an effective logline.

Winning Habits for Writers

Winning habits are those habits that make the tasks we have to perform easier by automating them, to a certain degree. Certainly, they give us the momentum we need to embark on our tasks by virtue of repitition. The harder the task, the more the benefit acquired through habit.

Steven King is a writer whose winning habits have catapulted him to deserved fame.
Steven King is a writer whose winning habits have catapulted him to deserved fame.

Going to gym at a certain time of day is one such habit that I find helpful. Sitting down to write each day is another. Here are some suggestions that make for successful writing:

1. Read voraciously. Stephen King reminds us that if we don’t have time to read, we don’t have time to write. Watch plenty of good movies too. If novels and short stories teach us about the inner journey, as well as character complexity and depth, movies teach us about pace, the outer journey and economy.

2. Enjoy and celebrate your creative journey—the mistakes too. Goethe once said: “By seeking and blundering we learn.” Sound advice indeed.

3. Join a writer’s group for networking, information, feedback and moral support.

4. Know your industry. Read dedicated magazines, subscribe to relevant blogs and websites. Try to learn something new about your craft each day.

5. Dispel negativity from your writing life, despite the growing number of rejection slips. Dean Koontz garnered 75 such slips before his first sale. Each book or screenplay represents enormous effort, dedication and faith. Negativity eats away at your resolve, self-belief and energy. It has no place in your process.

One important winning habit to acquire is to write regularly—every day if you can. Not each session has to produce inspired or superlative work. The point is to establish a routine.

6. Don’t second-guess, or edit your work while writing. Let the material pour out of you. Correcting and polishing are for the editing stage. 

7. Be persistent and committed. The great concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz once said: “Never give up, never give up, never give up.” You shouldn’t either.

9. Believe in yourself and in your abilities. If you don’t, why should anyone else?

10. Learn to take criticism. Feedback, fair or foul, is requisite and inevitable. Paz Octavio, the Mexican poet and writer said: “What distinguishes modern art from the art of other ages is criticism.” 

Summary

Fostering winning habits that develop and sustain stamina ought to make your goals as a writer easier to achieve.

Great Scenes: How to Write Them

Great scenes in Outrageous Fortune

Great scenes abound in Outrageous Fortune

As one of the larger units of story construction, great scenes make for great stories.

In his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hauge, provides us with a concise list of what makes for great scenes.

Checklist for writing great scenes:

1. How does your scene contribute to your protagonist’s outer and inner journey? Remember the outer goal is extremely important in a story. Rumination (inner journey) is not sufficient to drive your story forward. We need to see the protagonist engaged in outer struggles, if we are to understand his inner conflicts, too.

2. Does your scene, like your story, have a beginning, middle and end? Your scene ought to establish, build and resolve a situation. There are, of course, exceptions to this. Some scenes are short and are transitional in nature, intended solely to bridge other more important scenes, but as a general rule, this piece of advice holds true.

3. Does your scene propel the reader into the next? Causally linking one scene to the next at the level of the inner or outer journeys makes for compelling tales. In Outrageous Fortune, the scene of two women in the morgue is resolved only when they realise that the body is not that of their lover. But the end of the scene results in their decision to find him, which, in turn, drives the scenes that follow.

4. What is each character’s objective in the scene? Without an objective the scene is rudderless. In Before the Light each scene is causally linked to the next, making for compelling reading.

Great scenes tick several of this checklist’s boxes.

5. What is each character’s attitude in the scene? Each character wants something, overtly or covertly. (How does this want tally with that character’s need? ‘Big’ scenes ought to explore and reiterate the tension between want and need.) This want, together with that character’s personality traits, creates an attitude, a motivation.

Additionally, characters bleed feelings: they are sad, nostalgic, angry, bored, scared, or turned on, etc. These feelings are revealed directly through dialogue or more subtly, through subtext and action. In Moulin Rouge Satin’s declaration that she does not love Christian, a lie she utters in order to save his life by having him leave, is shot through with irony, sadness and a sense of tragedy.

6. Do many of your scenes contain action, not just dialogue? Talking heads are best left to television soapies and past masters such as Ingmar Bergman. Of course, dialogue is perfectly acceptable in scenes, but stories benefit from the injection of telling action, from small acts such as the lifting of an eyebrow, to the landing of a punch. Imagine your screenplay with the sound off. Is the meaning of a scene still apparent through the action of your characters? If the answer is ‘yes’ then you’d be better off culling as much dialogue as possible. Unless you are Woody Allen, or Quentin Tarantino, your screenplay should not be talk-heavy.

7. Does your scene serve multiple purposes? Does your scene keep your audience or readers emotionally involved with your protagonist and her journey to her goal? Does it reveal character background, motivation, conflict, anticipation, curiosity, credibility and identification or empathy? Does it contain foreshadowing, premonitions and the like? Again, not every scene can be cramp-packed with the above, but pivotal scenes clustered around and including your turning points, pinches, and midpoint, certainly can.

Summary

A scene checklist focuses on a series of important elements needed to make your story’s scenes great.

The Final Image in Stories

The final image in Before the Light.

The final image in Before the Light.

A truly memorable final image or moment is the crowning achievement of your story.

It acts like a handle with which to pick up the entire tale.

It helps the reader or audience recall the story through the precision of its visual or descriptive composition.

The Final Image

What makes for a great final image? One that captures what your story is really about. It is the exclamation mark that occurs at the end of all great narratives.

In constructing this last image ask yourself the following questions:

1. Does it solve or support the previous unpacking of the story puzzle?

In my most recent novella, Before the Light, the last image encapsulates the entire story. It is of the protagonist, Sam Yeager, holding a small figurine of Icarus against the disc of the sun. Here, Icarus is both the youth in Greek mythology who sought to soar above everyone else and ended up drowning by falling into the sea, as well as the quantum computer which has solved the secret of creation but can never share it with his creators for fear of destroying them.

In The Planet of the Apes, the chief story puzzle is to find out which planet astronaut Leo Davidson’ space capsule has landed on if he is ever to try and return home. The last image of the sunken Statue of Liberty, however, strikingly reveals that he’s been on earth all along.

2. Does it answer, or support a previous answer to the central dramatic question of the story?

In the same movie, this image also answers the chief dramatic question:
What allowed apes to gain evolutionary ascendency over man?
Answer: Time.

3. Does it reveal the protagonist’s hidden hope, ambition, or fear?

Davidson’s hopes of ever returning home come to naught. He is already home—in earth’s bleak future.

The power of a truly memorable final image lies in creating a snapshot of the entire story in the minds of those who encounter it.

Summary

The final image, line, or moment of your story ought to act as the exclamation point of your tale, revealing the essence of your story.

How to Write Paradoxical Characters

Paradoxical characters in Erin Brockovich

Paradoxical characters in Erin Brockovich

 

 

Paradoxical characters arise from the complexity of life itself. A paradox, in this sense, represents a deeply baffling complexity in a character navigating through life.

In her book, Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger wrote:

Paradoxes do not negate the consistencies, they simply add to them. Characters are more interesting if they are made up of mixed stuff, if they have warring elements.

To create warring elements, you begin by establishing one and asking: ‘Given this element, what other elements might there be in the same person that would create conflict?’

Why Paradoxical Characters are Good Characters

In the film Erin Brockovich, for example, Erin’s paradoxes include her desire to succeed professionally, juxtaposed against her need to take care of her children.

Her trailer-trash sexuality versus her ability and commitment to fight a huge corporation.

Her foul language and aggression juxtaposed against her desire to assist people find their way through the complex legal system.

In The Matrix, Neo is a hacker and merchant who is wanted by the law, yet, he is the one chosen to save humanity. The irony is not lost on the audience who, despite this, see him as a kind of modern day Christ figure.

If we think hard enough about the people we know we will find some fine examples of paradoxes drawn from real life. It’s part of the fabric of character: the bible-puncher who is involved with a prostitute, the club bouncer who is putty in his girlfriend’s hands, or the sweet old man with a foul mouth when it comes to dealing with the payment of bills.

Introducing paradoxes, or warring elements, into your characters will inject verisimilitude and interest in the stories you tell.

Summary

Paradoxical characters are an important part of creating vibrant, interesting, and authentic stories.

How to Write the Story Midpoint

The story midpoint in Field of Dreams

The story midpoint in Field of Dreams

Although much has been written about the story midpoint, not least in this blog, it is a crucial structural element in a story that deserves revisiting.

The middle of a story is the point in which the Hero makes an important decision: He can choose to turn back from the path he has been following, or press on with renewed insight—stemming from an event that has caused him to reassess his approach to it.

In my newest novella, Before the Light, about A.I. and the origin of the universe, the midpoint occurs when the protagonist, Sam Yeager, decides how best to proceed against the plot to destroy the quantum computer he helped to program.

Unlike the first or second turning point, the midpoint does not necessarily involve a huge climax or action scene.

What the midpoint does do is:

Cause the Hero to reassess the quest

Have him consider giving up

Lead him to the realisation that he must continue

Have him formulate a new or more specific plan of action and commit to this new goal in a way that he can not back out of

Cause him learn something new about his innermost self.

Story Midpoint Examples

In Field of Dreams, the midpoint occurs at the baseball game with Terence Mann, when Ray notices the sign about Archibald ‘Doc’ Graham, then hears, once more, the voice saying ‘Go the distance’. In The Crying Game, the midpoint occurs when Fergus uncovers Dill’s physical secret. In both cases, there is a strong inner, or, psychological aspect to the midpoint.

Typically, the midpoint changes a crucial aspect in the Hero’s inner life that impacts on his outer life: if he was not in control, he seizes control, if he was uncommitted, he becomes committed, if he was a victim, he decides to hit back, if he was hunted, he becomes the hunter, if he was delusional, he starts to deal with reality, if he was defeated by the goal, he begins a new struggle to achieve it.

In this sense, then, the midpoint brings the inner and outer journeys together by fusing self-illumination to a plan of action, which leads him to  achieve the story goal.

Summary

The story midpoint is not only the half-way point of the story in terms of length, it is also the moment in which the Hero reassesses his situation, regathers his strengthen and resources, and presses on with renewed insight and wisdom.

How to Manage Narrative Perspective in Story-Telling

Narrative perspective in The Matrix

Narrative perspective in The Matrix

Effectively managing narrative perspective in story-telling is one of the most important and difficult skills to master.

By perspective I mean the hierarchy of vantage points the writer adopts in relating the story to her audience or readers.

There are three main levels of perspective: the author’s (she decides when, what and how much to reveal), the protagonist’s/characters’ (who act as if they have a life independent of the author’s), and the reader’s/audience’s (who interpret the story according to their own expectations).

Most commonly, perspective is intimately tied to the protagonist’s point of view.

In the absence of authorial or directorial declaration, what the protagonists sees and perceives to be truth is transmitted to the audience/reader as being true – until the revelation or point of schism.

In the film The Matrix, for example, the audience is initially as unaware that the depicted world is an illusion as is Neo.

The Point of Schism in Narrative Perspective

The plot thickens when our point of view separates from the protagonist’s. Before this moment, we share the protagonist’s confusion, bewilderment, and surprise as events unfold. Here, our association with the protagonist is one of subjectivity and identification. After the point of schism, we see beyond this limited vision – we perceive the dangers and are made privy to the traps planned for him by the antagonist.

I call this moment the point of schism – or a tear in perspective – and regard it as a narrative device whose importance is comparable to that of a turning point or mid-point. The insight afforded to us at this moment increases the suspense we feel for the protagonist, since we see danger approaching more clearly than he does. An example of this in The Matrix is the meeting between agent Smith, and Cypher who offers to lead Neo and the others into a trap in exchange for being re-inserted back inside the matrix as “someone important”.

Reversing the Schism

Sometimes, however, the schism works in reverse order: the protagonist knows the truth while the audience doesn’t — in The Hunt for Red October, the audience believes that the defecting Russian submarine has been sunk by the Russian fleet, when in fact, it is a trick played on the Russians (and the audience) by Captain Marko Ramius in order to slip through the Russian net and seek asylum in the United States.

Simultaneous Revelation

Occasionally, the story’s true perspective — the perspective of the author — is revealed to both the audience/reader and the protagonist simultaneously. Here, the author withholds crucial information from us and the protagonist till the revelation.

In the film The Sixth Sense, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist, who is shot in the stomach by a disturbed patient at the beginning of the film, ostensibly attempts to help his young patient Cole Sear with problems arising from his ability to see dead people. His relationship with his wife continues to deteriorate as Crowe spends more and more time in his basement alone, and continues to treat Cole.

The film, which is a master class in sleight-of-hand, reveals the biggest twist of all towards the end of the film when Crowe notices that his wedding ring in no longer on his finger but on his sleeping wife’s hand. We suddenly realize, along with Crowe, that it is he who has been dead all along as a result of having been shot in the stomach.

A Short Exercise

With reference to three films or novels you admire, answer the following questions:

Where is the point of schism in each?

Describe the type of schism.

What is the effect of the schism on the story and how could it have been done differently?

Summary

Choosing precisely when, where, and how to introduce a schism in narrative perspective, and what form it will take, requires an understanding of how it will change your story and what effect it will have on your readers and audience.

Strong Character Relationships in Stories

Strong relationships in Breaking Bad

Strong relationships abound in Breaking Bad

In her book, Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger reminds us that character relationships are at the centre of most stories. With the exception of such stories as Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, or Steven Spielberg’s Duel, most tales consist of characters who love, hate, like, or dislike each other.

Novelist Leonard Tourney stresses that couples have become more important in fiction and in film.

Pairing people up into relationships changes their individual chemistry; it brings out differing aspects in them: Walter White’s complex master/slave relationship with Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, is one of the many examples of this sort of complexity. Older television series such as Cheers, Starsky and Hutch, Cagney and Lacey, and Moonlighting, are more cases in point. This is not limited to television alone.

Ask yourself the question: How successful would Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Rain Man, or Breaking Bad have been without the special relationships between the lead characters?

All of these stories have characters based on traits that cause the most bang for the buck when mixed together. And it’s not any old mix.

The nature of character relationships

It involves certain recurring traits and patterns in stories:

1. Characters who have something in common that brings them and keeps them together.

2. A conflict between characters that threatens to tear them apart and is the cause of much of the humour or drama in a story.

3. Characters have contrasting traits — opposites may attract, but they often combust when brought together.

4. Characters that have the ability to transform each other, for better or worse.

Marshaling characters utilising these relational traits is a useful method for creating interesting stories.

Summary

Writing characters engaged in strong relationships with one another is an important way of generating interest in your stories.

What are the Stakes for your Hero?

Stakes and Deliverance

The stakes could not be higher in Deliverence.

 

What are the stakes for you hero?

In Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger points out that studio executives, producers and story editors are fond of asking this question of every writer.

The answer to this question can make or break a story.

The Stakes

If the risks are weak or unclear, readers and audiences have no reason to care about the characters in our story or see any connection between their experience and the experience of our fictional characters — our characters will not evoke a sense of empathy.

Abraham Maslow devised a seven-part hierarchy to explain what drives us as people, and what the stakes are if we fail to get what we need or seek.

1. Survival: Many excellent stories are about survival. This primal instinct is basic to all animals and we are no exception. By centering our story around the hero’s (or community’s) survival, we’re ticking the first box on the list of creating empathy. The movie, Deliverance, is a fine example of this.

2. Safety and Security; Once our survival needs are met, we seek a safe and secure place to keep the dangers at bay. We lock our doors, build forts, raise armies to guard us. Voyage of the Damned and Country utilise this need in their stories.

3. Love and Belonging: But what is a safe home without love and family? We have a deep need to connect with others. We need to love and be loved in return. In Places of the Heart, Edna desperately wants to preserve her family — a family that comprises of more than just her children. It includes Will, the blind man, and Moses, a black male. This need drives the story to its inevitable conclusion.

4. Esteem and Self-Respect: People desire to be looked up to, respected. But this respect has to be earned through knowledge and hard-knocks. Luke Skywalker earns respect at the end of Star Wars after a series of lessons learnt the hard way.

5. The Need to Know and Understand. We are insatiably curious creatures. We seek to understand how things work, how they fit together. We seek to know what life is, where we came from. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is driven, in part, by such a curiosity, while films such as Back to the Future and The Time Machine show characters perpetually struggling to understand how to travel back and forth in time.

6. The Aesthetic: Once we are secure and confident, we seek to create a sense of order in our lives by connecting to something higher than ourselves. This can be a religious or aesthetic experience, but it often involves the search for epiphany. Films such as Joan of Arc, Amadeus, and Never Cry Wolf, use this more abstract need to drive their stories.

7. Self-Actualisation: Finally, we need to express ourselves — to communicate who we are, to declare our skills and talents to ourselves and the world. Artists and athletes express this need through their desire to finish a work, break a record. The need to excel is strongly displayed in films such as Chariots of Fire and The Turning Point.

Used in combination these needs, instincts and desires form the backbone of many successful stories. They create empathy in readers and audiences, linking their own desires to the dreams, hopes and fears of fictional characters.

Summary

Use Maslow’s hierarchy to help you establish the stakes for your story‘s fictional characters to motivates their actions and experiences.