Tag Archives: screenplays

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.

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 Use Dramatic Irony in your Story

Statues of monkeys: see no eveil, hear no evil, speak no evil

Not in the Know

Dramatic irony typically occurs when the reader, audience, and perhaps, some, but not all of the characters in a story are privy to important information that the protagonist is unaware of, or presumes an opposite situation to be true.

Structuring Dramatic Irony

In order to create dramatic Irony in your story, do the following:

1. Show the reader or audience the kind of misunderstanding or deception that is being perpetrated. This could be intended or unintended.

2. Place the protagonist in that situation without revealing to her the information necessary for her to know she is being deceived.

3. Play the scene out, step by step, allowing the reader or audience to observe the protagonist suffering the consequences of events and actions, whilst thinking the situation to be precisely the opposite of what is actually happening.

In Moulin Rouge, Satin (Nichole Kidman) pretends she doesn’t love Christian (Ewan McGregor) so that he will leave her and so save his life—only he can’t know the real reason, for this to work. She pretends that she wants to stay with the Maharaja at Moulin Rouge. In other words, she has to hurt Christian in order to save him, precisely because she loves him, by pretending she doesn’t. The dramatic irony in the scene in which she reveals this to him is tragic and heart-rendering.

Satin: I can never see you again.
Christian: What are you talking about? What about last night?
Satin: I don’t expect you to understand. You don’t belong here. But this is my home: Moulin Rouge.

Christian stares at Satin in horror. Satin smiles weakly; hurries to the door.

Christian: What’s going on? Satin! There’s something wrong…

Satin battles to control her breathing.

Christian: You’re sick. Tell me the truth!

Satin gathers her last remaining strength and turns to him with cold lifeless eyes.

Satin: The truth…the truth is, I am the Hindi Courtesan Christian, and I choose the Maharaja. That’s how the story ends.

And with that, she turns and goes.

It is important to understand that in this superlative example of dramatic irony, we are made privy not only to Christian’s pain, but Satin’s as well, through our understanding that her actions are a sacrificial show of love. We get meaning and emotion from both sides, and this heightens the power of the scene.

Summary

Dramatic irony typically occurs when the audience, and one or more party is aware of the true nature of a situation while the protagonist presumes the opposite to be true. The effect on the reader and audience is one of heightened emotion.

Invitation

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.