Tag Archives: novels

Turning Life into Great Writing

Great writing

Turning life into great writing

Great writing, in my opinion, embodies two indispensable but distinct sets of skills.

The first arises from the writer’s own life: empathy, intuition, observation, inquisitiveness, moral compass, and the like.

Some skills within this first set are surreptitiously acquired over time, simply by living one’s life; others are innate and spring from the writer’s general and emotional intelligence.

The second is learnt more quickly. Knowledge about the craft, such as how to fashion the theme of a story, how to make characters engaging, how to weave plot and subplot together so that they compliment each other, is easier to acquire.

Much of the writerly advice offered in books, blogs, and courses emphasises this second set of skills. Mention is made of the importance of the first set, a writer’s powers of observation, or the need to be inquisitive, but the emphasis lies squarely on how to work with technique. The reason is simple.

It is far easier to teach someone how to use a turning point to spin the story around than it is to align that turning point with some astute observation about the human condition.

I often advise my students to think about both sets of requirements simultaneously; to try and integrate them into the writing process from the get-go.

The information needed to produce great writing is all around us—in streets, shops, restaurants—if only we can learn to observe, relate, and recognise its relevance in our work.

Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to be teaching at a college in Australia, which was situated a few hundred meters from the art gallery at Brisbane’s South Bank. I would often spend my lunch hour there browsing through its many treasures.

Turning life into great writing

I remember on one occasion being captivated by a painting of a young woman in a floral dress. She was leaning against a tree and seemed rather forlorn.

I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, that someone else was studying the painting intently. A glance revealed that this person, an elderly man with deeply wrinkled skin, was working his top lip with his teeth. Another glance revealed a trace of tears in his pale eyes.

I crept away so as not to intrude, but my imagination raced with narrative possibilities. Did she remind him of his own daughter that had, perhaps, passed away? Or, had the young woman been a lover who had rejected him?

I tucked the image away in my mind for use in some future story, perhaps as a minor beat, perhaps as an inciting incident or turning point.

I have, as yet, not exactly done so, although I did locate a few important scenes with a very different character at that very gallery in my second Scarab novel.

The point is that one’s readiness to absorb a spectrum of experiences, to remember the small details that breathe life into memory, and to allow for their narrative possibilities to take hold of the imagination, is a wonderful way to broaden one’s skills in life and in writing.

Summary

Great writing requires the integration of two distinct sets of skills. The one stems from living and observing life, the other from mastering the techniques that transforms life into stories.

Supporting Dialogue in Novels and Screenplays

Dialogue and action in novels and screenplaysDialogue in novels and screenplays is one of the most indispensable items in the writer’s toolkit.

Written well, with an appropriate relevance to character and a sufficient use of subtext, dialogue is one of the most economical ways to progress a story.

But dialogue on its own, no matter how skilful, can succumb the talking-head syndrome that will destroy the tactile texture of a story. Few writers can get away with excessive dialogue at the expense of action – with the exception of a Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino.

For most of us, supporting dialogue with telling bits of action, no matter how small, is the way to go.

Dactions for novels and screenplays

Dialogue-supporting actions, or, dactions, as I playfully call them, fall into two broad categories according to their functions, which, directly or indirectly, serve to intensify what is being said.

If Tom, for example, is threatening to kill James while cutting meat on a chopping block, then the action directly enhances the dialogue.

If, on the other hand, Tom is threatening James while lovingly brushing his poodle’s coat with a brush, the action enhances the dialogue indirectly. Indeed, such an indirect enhancement can be even more menacing, precisely because of the air of normality with which the threat is delivered.

Nor does the action have to come from the characters who are doing the talking.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, two brothers sit chatting in the kitchen in the presence of a young boy who is retrospectively relating the tale to us. The conversation is punctuated by the boy’s observations of his mother’s seemingly pointless folding, unfolding, and refolding of clothes in the adjoining room.

This action undercuts the supposed friendly conversation taking place in the kitchen, although the boy does not yet understand the reason for his unease. Indeed, the boy’s nativity, makes the discomfort more subtle, increasing the tension for the reader.

Summary

Dactions ramp up the meaning of dialogue between characters, while simultaneously adding an element of tactile physicality to novels and screenplays.

A Writer’s Perspective

Many cartoon facesIn 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 and novelist.

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

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

Additionally, a radical change of viewpoint can allow the writer to mine many existing and beloved stories, generating countless adaptations.

A change of viewpoint 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.

Or, Cinderella, in a reimagined version, can trace the sorry lot of an ugly sister, hopelessly outgunned and outshone by a shallow, foul-mouthed bimbo who can’t stop talking about fine clothes and marrying 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? How would our sympathies shift through this he-said, she-said 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 perspective is integral to the tone, theme, and the emotional commitment of your readers to your characters and story.

Summary

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

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How to Choose Character Names

Name drop-down window

What's in a Name?

Character names are an important part of constructing character identity. Not only does a name help us to identify the players in your story, but it often carries the flavour and scent of that character.

An expectant mother is overheard choosing a name for her child: Pat, Kelly, Terry, Bobby. Her sole reason for considering these particular names is that each can be applied to both a boy and girl. This flexibility could save her the disappointment of choosing a name early only to have her give it up upon discovering the actual gender of her baby.

But this flexibility is precisely the reason we should avoid assigning interchangeable names to the characters in our stories. Although an audience will immediately recognise someone by her or his appearance, this is not the case with words on a page. Here, the character description performs this function, which, in the short story or novel, may be purposely scanty, or scattered throughout the text. At a glance, the name of the character is the chief indicator of identity, as in the above instance. Few readers will doubt the gender of a Samuel, Rachael, Frederick, or Penelope.

It is also good practice to avoid giving characters similar sounding names. Clive and Kyle, Sharon and Shannine, Harry and Larry—except, of course, where the possible confusion flowing from this similarity helps the plot.

But a name may also add additional meaning and flavour to a character: Biblical names such as Paul, Peter, Ezekiel, Rachael, Mary and David, although commonplace, may still carry a trace of biblical resonance, especially if the context supports this. In my forthcoming novel, Mars: Planet of Redemption, the protagonist, an unconventional priest with the power to heal, is called Paul, for precisely this reason.

Certain names may hint at an entire belief system or only certain aspects of a character whether that character turns out to adhere to that association or not. The more unusual or uncommon the name, the stronger the association. Few of us, for example, would name our character Hitler or Mandela without expecting some association to accrue, and without providing some sort of reason in the plot why we have chosen to do so.

The web is replete with lists and articles providing and explaining the origin of names, their meaning and history. Books on naming conventions, available at any bookstore, are also a good place to start hunting for that all important handle of characters.

Summary

Choosing the right name for your character is the first step in developing a unique and effective character identity.

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How to Generate Novel Story Ideas

Head in a labyrinth with light bulb

Generating New Story Ideas

How does one generate new and exciting ideas for one’s stories? This perennial and important question has had many answers. Listed below, are some of them:

Idea-Generating Techniques

— Use personal experience to spark new and authentic story ideas. This helps to add verisimilitude and uniqueness to any piece of creative writing because it is based on first-hand knowledge of real-life situations.

— Keep a file of newspaper and magazine articles and stories; also, short notes on television documentaries and programs that have caught your eye. Use them to kick-start your thinking on a related subject.

— Use a notebook or digital device to document interesting bits of conversation, behaviour, dreams, personal encounters, dress codes.

— Explore new ideas by brainstorming a subject with colleges and friends. Free-associate fundamental aspects of that subject by introducing nouns and verbs not usually associated with it. Note the new relationships that emerge. Those may spark new ways of looking at old ideas.

— Ask that powerful idea-generating question:’What if…’. Combine it with an unexpected or opposing idea. If, for example, your subject is about a paid soldier of fortune, you could start by asking: What if a hardened mercenary is asked to assassinate a businesswoman who turns out to be his son’s wife who is pregnant with his child?

— Mind-map a subject or idea by writing down its core meaning in the middle of a blank page or screen. Create a series of associated ideas in bubbles around that core idea and draw links from one to the other. Again, try thinking laterally by linking unrelated ideas together and see what that sparks.

— When writing a scene, make it multidimensional by exploring it with all five of your senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch. Note the dominate sense operating within the scene then replay it in your imagination, using a different sense. Note how it changes your approach to writing the scene.

Summary

There are many ways to generate new ideas for stories. Personal experience, keeping files and notebooks, brainstorming with others, using the what-if question, mind-mapping, strongly projecting one’s self into an imagined scenario by applying all five senses to it, are just some of them.

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And the Secret to Writing a Good Story Is…

Babies Kissing

Secret Ingredient

What does it take to write a good story? The facile answer is: many things – maturity, insight, observational skills, a good ear for dialogue, an understanding of story structure, and so on. But is there one element without which your story would be significantly weaker? When I joined Elmo de Witt Films in the early nineties as that company’s resident screenwriter, the experienced South African director gave me a piece of advice that I’ve been mulling over ever since: a story that doesn’t solicit emotion is headed for failure or, at best, obscurity.

Emotion and Story: Why should we Care?

A story filled with events and characters who leave us cold, leaves us cold, period. It may be filled with wonderful ideas and insights about life, science, religion, philosophy. But, who cares? If you want to write about any of those, publish a paper in an academic journal, write an editorial in a magazine, or deliver a talk at the local philosophical society. A story is, of course, capable of transmitting deep, world-changing ideas, but only if we care enough about the events and characters in the story to delve deeper into the text and ferret such ideas out.

Caring about Fictional Characters and their Situation

So how do we create characters that audiences and readers care about? This is a skill that we foster and nourish throughout our writing careers. It doesn’t come overnight. The centuries are littered with tomes addressing the subject, and countless of modern-day blog posts, including mine, proffer aspects of the craft. Needless to say that any blog on effective character creation rests on a similar foundation – the use of emotion to draw us into our characters’ lives. Without wishing to diminish the depth and complexity of the subject, I offer one way, out of a myriad of others, which may assist you in kick-starting your thinking on how to approach the challenge of creating characters that we care about: Make your character (1) a worthy/interesting/caring person (2) who finds herself in a situation of undeserved misfortune/peril, which (3) worsens as the story progresses. This is the first step in creating empathy for your character, and therefore, in getting to know and care for her.

Summary

One of the most important requirements of a successful story is that it solicits an emotional response from its readers and audiences. Only if we are emotionally involved in a tale will we care enough about it to spend time trying to understand its deeper layers – the themes and ideas it espouses.

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If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.