Tag Archives: screenwriting

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.

How to Write Great Loglines

Writing LoglinesIN ONE of my recent classes on storytelling I invited my screenwriting students to come up with three loglines, before choosing the best amongst them.

Some were more enticing than others. Fresher concepts, new angles on old ones, dangling questions that demanded answers.

Others, not so much.

The Essence of Loglines

When the dust had settled and the best loglines stood shoulder to shoulder one thing seemed obvious. They all foregrounded concrete, outer journey elements of the story while simultaneously revealing essential aspects of the inner journey – the reasons and explanation of why the hero acts in the way that he does.

Being loglines, they did not go overboard in fleshing this out. They provided just enough information to intrigue the reader.

Loglines and high concept have this in common: They allow the reader, in the words of Steven Spielberg, to hold the story in the palm of her hand – to glimpse, in one fell swoop, what the story is about – although high concept focuses on elements of uniqueness and originality far more than any ordinary logline.

So it is with any commercially viable story. Without a concrete, palpable plot in which the hero has to struggle in physically challenging spaces against a powerful villain to achieve his goal, there is no story to tell.

The point is important. If the reader can not see the physical arc of the story in a logline she will probably not be interested in reading the rest of the tale in order to reach its themes and concepts.

This is not to say that the inner journey is not of vital importance. Many of the greatest stories ever written had powerful inner journeys – Lord of the Rings, The Spire. But it is to say that the inner journey will only be of interest if the vehicle that carries it, the outer journey, is concrete and palpable.

The logline, “The Land Below is a post-apocalyptic story concerning a young orphan boy who embodies the themes of survival versus freedom,” is not as good as:

The Land Below is the story of a lowly orphan boy who secretly plots to escape his suffocating post-apocalyptic existence in a converted goldmine, knowing that if betrayed, he will be executed for fermenting resurrection against the social order.”

In the second logline the themes of survival and freedom are still present, but they emerge through the visceral and emotive use of concrete, palpable words such as “plots”, “suffocating”, “goldmine”, “betrayed,” “executed,” and “resurrection”. The logline allows us to hold the story in the palm of our hand.

Summary

Write effective loglines using concrete, emotive, and visceral language that creates a snapshot of your hero’s outer journey, while simultaneously hinting at his reasons for undertaking it.

Writing Powerful Scenes

Power ScenesIN a recent lecture on storytelling I was asked about the general design mechanics of scenes. What sorts of functions must occur in a scene to make it effective – especially a pivotal scene such as one containing a turning point? And how are these functions grouped together?

I find it helpful to organise functions into separate layers. The first two are straight forward. On one level scenes must showcase actions such as the hero’s response to some challenge laid down before him. Actions comprise the so-called outer journey – the plot.

But on an underlying level scenes must also support the plot by showing that the hero’s actions are consistent with his inner journey. In other words, that his motivation arises naturally from his values, beliefs, background.

Additionally, the hero must show personal growth. He must exhibit an ability to learn from the mistakes he makes in pursuing his goal, if he is finally to achieve it.

Involving Readers and Audiences in Your Scenes

These two levels in a scene are indispensable to each other. They really make up a single dramatic unit – action and its motivational core. But there is another layer we can add to a pivotal scene to make it even more effective. We can offer the reader or audience more information than is available to the hero.

If we, as an audience, are aware of something that the hero is not, such as that his wife is cheating on him with his best friend, or that there is a bomb in his car, or that his boss is planning to fire him, then we generate tension which is dissipated only when the hero learns this himself.

Hitchcock is a master of this technique. His films are studies of how to generate suspense by revealing to audiences things that the protagonist has yet to realise.

In my science fiction thriller, The Level, the protagonist, a man suffering from amnesia who is trying to escape from a derelict asylum, is unaware that he is being stalked by someone brandishing a meat clever, a man who bares him a grudge for some past offense. But the reader is, and this generates additional suspense for the protagonist with whom the reader identifies.

Not all scenes and genres are susceptible to this sort of treatment. Sprinkled here and there, however, the technique significantly ramps up tension that keeps our readers and audiences engrossed.

Summary

Reveal more information to your readers and audiences than is known to your protagonist in specific scenes in your story to help spike up the tension.

The Gap in Stories

Stories and the Gap

Stories and the gap

IN his influential book, Story, Robert McKee explains a mechanism that is central to understanding the protagonist’s action in stories. He calls this mechanism the gap.

The gap refers to the distance between the protagonist’s subjective evaluation of the achievability of the goal and its objective evaluation by the external world.

From the protagonist’s point of view the paths to the goal seem initially doable and efficient. But as he initiates action the reaction of the world creates a resistance which is proportional to the effort expended.

Extending the Gap in Stories

The more the effort the more resistance he encounters. The result is that his initial evaluation of the goal, too, begins to change. Inner and personal conflicts combine with external conflicts to open a gap between his action and its effectiveness.

This constant expansion of the gap changes the protagonist. He begins to doubt his ability to achieve success. He starts questioning his values and resources. He is forced to take more desperate action, take more risks, in order to try and reverse each failure.

Without a gap between expectation and result in stories, without increasing risk, there would be no tension and conflict. There would be no drama.

The gap between intention and result, therefore, is the space in which interesting and engrossing conflicts play themselves out. Additionally, the gap is not only the generator of inner and outer conflict, it is the motivator of change in the protagonist.

Summary

The gap in stories is the space that separates action and reaction, intention and result, emanating from the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal.

How to Avoid a Common Weakness in Writing

Writing padIT WAS while teaching classes on Story that I confirmed a common weakness in novice writing – writing that is on-the-nose.

This means that the movement of a scene occurs on the surface, at the level of plot, and not sub-textually where the reader is most involved.

Think of this as writing external action that lacks inner conflict. To avoid this pitfall, and go a step further, present inner conflict as something that the reader is aware of, but not the character(s). Readers will feel compassion, suspense, and interest in the scene because they will be privy to something that a character may only become aware of later, if at all.

Stronger Writing

My advice to new writers is to have them create scenes where the outer movement runs at an angle to the inner motivation – where a character says one thing but means, or intends, quite another. This creates a subtext of conflict in the scene, substantially deepening our enjoyment of it.

In Moulin Rouge Satine realises that if her lover, Christian, stays with her, his life will be in danger from the Duke who wants her for himself. So in order to protect him she lies to Christian, telling him that she does not love him, that she will marry the Duke instead. The audience is aware that her lie is a painful but selfless sacrifice. Our heart goes out to her, as well as to Christian, doubling our emotion.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, an American theoretical physicist, dreams of one day solving his equations to prove that time travel to the past is possible. But we realise that being past his prime, Benjamin is unlikely to ever achieve this, and our compassion for him increases.

In both examples, it is what lies between the lines that carries most of the emotion and power of the story, not the plot.

Summary

Writing scenes where the outer movement runs at an angle to the inner motivation of characters makes for engaging stories.

The Heart Remembers

Santa on a BikeI was not going to write a blog this week – so close after Christmas and so close to the new year. I’m so chock-a-block with chocolates, good Greek food, and merriment that, frankly, I thought I’d not be in mood. Truthfully, I have never been a great one for that sort of festivity.

But as I think about the moments of the past day or so, moments spent with family and friends where new memories were laid down for future access, I get to thinking about love and memory and how they are golden threads that stitch our lives together and give it meaning, so I decide to write down a few words anyway.

I have often wished I could travel back in time, back to some juncture in my life and change something small – go left instead of right, pick up the phone when I did not; small things that sometimes have big consequences.

As if to torment myself, I often imagine revisiting such moments, over and over again. I see two versions of myself, one standing to the side, like an invisible unsmiling time-traveller, looking on at my younger self as he goes about his business, and I wish I could whisper in his ear about the things I know now.

But of course the past is a place to be frequented by the heart, while the present affords us the opportunity to ensure that the past will be a good place to visit in the future.

So, now, as I say goodbye to friends and family for yet another year, I take the time to hug each of them a little tighter and longer than before, and tell them how much I enjoyed our time together.

I throw a wink over my shoulder at my future self standing under the big tree in our yard to let him know that I finally get it. This time I imagine he is smiling.

Action, Description and Dialogue

Man in silhouetteBlending action, description and dialogue together is a good way of sprinkling interest and variety in your scenes, providing it’s done well. Dialogue, at its best, not only reveals character and conveys information efficiently, it injects pace and rhythm into your story too.

But too much dialogue can distance the reader from the physical environment of the scene.

Too often we break up dialogue by injecting trivial or inconsequential action and description. Characters casually leaning, smiling, drawing on cigarettes, without a deeper motive, lowers the quality of our writing.

Done well, however, significant action and description can spruce up any scene. In The Thomas Crown Affair a chess game between Faye Dunaway, the insurance investigator, and the criminal, Steve McQueen, bristles with sexual tension and innuendo. The phallic nature of the chess pieces and the sensual way they are being touched, supported by the array of fertile glances, underpins the laconic dialogue admirably.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the climactic scene of the story, had to be handled sensitively since it brought together so many elements, including a startling revelation from the backstory which helps to explain much of the protagonist’s behaviour. References to the eye of the storm winking shut, the stars disappearing, and the parents being still like old photographs in an album, add to the undercurrent of meaning of the story. Here’s an example from the text:

The storm is picking up now and I struggle to hear the words spilling from his mouth. I look up at the sky. The eye is moving away, winking shut. The stars are a thin dotted line. Soon, they too will be gone.
“Time to leave, Ben,” Miranda pleads, pointing in the direction of the house through the throng of trees.
“Will you come with me?” I ask.
“Not this time.”
“Not ever,” Fanos says. “But you can start again. Find a happier time and place. Isn’t that what your theories talk about? The existence of the paths you wished you’d taken? All you’ve got to do is want it hard enough.”
I glance at my mother and my father. They stand holding hands silently, as if suddenly struck mute. Their eyes are upon me, searching for a clue to my true feelings. Their bodies are perfectly still, like the figures in black and white photographs in an old album are still.

Interspersing your dialogue with telling action and description that reveals character and deepens the meaning of your scenes is an essential skill in any writer’s toolkit.

Summary

Blend action, description and dialogue together to vary interest and deepen your scenes.

How Do You Become A Better Writer?

Multicolored chalkA writer’s path from competence to excellence is a difficult one. It meanders, advances, turns back on itself. And, in the end, there’s no guarantee that the traveler will reach her destination. Excellence will elude all but the most talented and fortunate of writers.

Great writing requires a special combination of mental skills, social circumstances, effort, passion, as well as a fair bit of luck — few of us will keep writing if we keep failing to be published or to garner some positive criticism from our readers.

Despite this, I do believe that the ability to write well can be taught, I wouldn’t be a teacher of the craft if I didn’t believe in the benefit of practice and study. I believe writing is a craft, as much as an art, like woodwork or cooking, although it requires much more than technique to cure into a great dish.

While acknowledging that there is almost as much advice on writing as there are people offering it, I believe that a writer’s development falls into three distinct categories:

1. Understanding the function of structure in stories — how structure paces and orders the reader’s response.

2. The ability to identify meaningful ideologies, ideas and trends from life and distill them into specific themes, characters and events in a way that makes the story both specific and universal.

3. The ability to develop a distinct voice — a difficult entity to pin down, but one that might be understood as the unique pattern arising out of the writer’s body of work.

I have found that thinking about my development as a writer in this way allows me to identify and group specific weaknesses into categories and work on them in a more methodical way.

Perhaps you might benefit from a similar approach?

Summary

Identify and rectify weaknesses in your writing by focusing on the broader categories.

Invitation

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Show Me With Your Body

Girl holding sunThe adroit use of body language to enrich character meaning and intent both in screenplays and novels is a necessary skill. It forms part of the show-don’t-tell arsenal of techniques that makes our writing crisp and resonant.

Take the following snippet from my recent novelette, The Nostalgia of Time Travel.

To put you in the picture – Benjamin Vlahos, the protagonist the story, watches an apparition, a version of himself, slumbering in a deckchair in his candlelit room while a cyclone approaches.

I could have written:

I stare at the slumbering figure intently. He seems pained, buffeted by raging nightmares. I can’t help but wonder about the extent of fear and regret tormenting him.

Pretty lame, right? Instead I wrote:

I study the ashen-faced man slumbering in front of me. His lips tremble. His eyes rage behind closed eyelids. His jaw grinds down on the bones of all the years.

This is better.

Although the body language centers around small actions, such as trembling lips and a grinding jaw, and throws in a metaphor to boot, it does a better job at conveying the tormented inner life of the sleeping figure. It obeys that much vaunted bit of advice of showing the reader the clues and letting her work out the emotion for herself, rather than handing it to her in a platter.

The use of body language to convey the inner state of a character is a powerful technique that helps to keep an audience or reader engaged in your story. It should always replace a spoon-fed description of your character’s emotions.

Summary

Use body language to describe a character’s inner life.

A Great Story Depends on Great Timing

Clock faceIn a previous article I discussed the importance of syncing your hero’s outer journey to his inner journey – to his character arc. Today I want to say a bit more about the nature of that syncing.

It’s important to emphasise that your hero should not act beyond his state of moral and practical wisdom – his performance at the level of the outer journey has to reflect his knowledge at the level of the inner journey.

But why, then, if the hero keeps learning from the outer journey’s knocks, if the hero keeps improving, does he keep failing to attain the goal, until the end of the story?

The answer is to be found in the precise nature of the syncing, which is to say that the lesson learnt is always one step behind the evolving challenges posed by the outer journey. Hence, the knowledge the hero brings to a new confrontation is less than required to gain the goal and defeat the antagonist at that moment.

It is only towards the end of the journey that the hero is able to integrate the wisdom gained from the series of hard knocks, dig deep inside and produce a superlative response which defeats the antagonist and gains the goal.

In my best selling novel, Scarab, for example, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, fails to outwit the villain and protect the woman he loves until he realises that he must sacrifice what he wants (to win Emma’s love) in order to gain what he needs (to save Emma’s life). It is a realisation that takes most of the story to achieve.

Summary

The lessons learnt by the hero lag behind the evolving challenges of the outer journey and the wisdom needed to defeat the villain and gain the goal until the end of the story.