Tag Archives: stories

How to Keep Evolving Stories on Track

Evolving storiesAre stories evolving? In his book The Screenwriter’s Workbook screenwriting guru Syd Field wrote this about the screenplay: […] I think we’re in the middle of a screenwriting revolution, a time where screenwriters are pushing the form in new directions.”

This insight may well be applied to all stories.

Evolving Structures

In my own PhD thesis, Multiform and Multistrand Narrative Structures in Hollywood Cinema, I trace the impact of digital media on the story-telling form. I suggest that since stories are structured to reflect our experiences their form is likely to change when experience changes.

The increasing non-linearity of life, reflected in the web environment in which we spend so much time, must influence our understanding of action – even of time and space.

Meaning, and our interpretation of it, which rests on our salient understanding of how time and space structures experience, has to shift under such pervasive and persistent pressure.

This may explain the popularity of films such as The English Patient, Cold Mountain, 2046, Pulp Fiction, Memento, Donnie Darko, Inception, and many others.

These films muddle our understanding of linear sequencing, of cause and effect. They rearrange past, present and future, making the status of what is real problematic. The idea is to reflect, at the level of structure, the bewildering complexity and multiplicity of contemporary life.

The danger in tinkering with the traditional form defined by Aristotle as a narrative that has a beginning, middle and end, however, is that the emotional impact on the reader is lessened. Stories that fail to evoke strong emotion are not effective.

My advice to authors and screenwriters who choose to write in evolving, non-linear forms, then, is to ensure that their characters continue to evoke powerful emotion in us – passion, sadness, joy, disdain – the usual fare of traditional story-telling.

I’d like to think I followed my own advice in my non-linear novel, The Level.

Evolving form and structure, then, should never dazzle us at the cost of lessening the emotional impact of our characters. Not if we want our audiences and readers to give a damn.

Summary

Never allow the evolving form and structure of stories to get in the way of emotion.

How Good is Your Story?

Thumbs upAs an author, and a lecturer in the craft of storytelling, I am often asked, in the first instance, and required, in the second, to evaluate work that is presented to me. I am, and always have been, uncomfortable with assigning numerical values (marks) to stories. Stories are not algebra. The final product is not right or wrong. Stories are works of art, and as such, are as slippery as eels. They are, to some extent, subject to taste, to audience/readership preferences, and to the current popularity of specific genres.

Here, I am not referring to grammatical errors, faulty sentence construction, spelling mistakes—to editing. Those are all perfectly quantifiable. I am talking about the perceived worth of more nebulous concepts such as “up” versus “down” endings, relevance of theme, effectiveness of writing style, and even to such technical aspects as judging whether the right balance between characterisation and the relentless forward thrust of the story, has been achieved.

In the past few days I have had to provide guidance regarding the appropriateness of selecting one director over another for study, asked to evaluate a story-in-progress by an indie colleague, and implored to give a rating, as a number out of ten, of a completed first draft of a novel by another.

My answer to the first request was that any director whose body of work has solicited varied opinions, and is of interest to the student, is worthy of study; to the second, that the writer finish the story before seeking the opinion of others; to the third, that I would not give a mark out of ten, but I would offer my opinion as to whether I thought the story to be poor, show promise, or be ready-to-go.

This reluctance to provide a hard judgment on stories is less an indication of temerity or ignorance on my part than it is a response to the changing environment of story reception. Certainly, with regard to indie films and novels, the public is the ultimate judge of whether a story will sink or swim. I know of many instances where work has been turned down by publishers and producers and then has gone on to achieve extraordinary success on amazon, or through Internet channels such as YouTube, resulting in burgeoning writing and film making careers on the part of the writers and filmmakers.

Does this challenge the belief that some works are genuinely better than others? Certainly, not in terms of quantifiable technical aspects that are subject to proper editing; but it does acknowledge the proliferation of relativism with regards to theme and subject matter. In a fast-changing, technologically-driven world where the boundaries of nationality and personal identity (and, by implication, genre), are bleeding into each other, these aspects of a story are a lot harder to pin down, let alone, evaluate. My advise to story tellers is simply this: Write your stories to the best of your ability and let your readership or audience decide on whether they succeed or fail.

Summary

The success or failure of your stories, especially for indie writers and filmmakers, ultimately lies in the hands of your readership or audience. Solicit the opinion of experts on technical aspects of your work, but leave the judgment about your subject matter and its stylistic treatment to the latter.

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Image by Barry Solow

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 Start Your Stories

Starting line

Story Start

A great opening immediately hooks the reader or audience and stacks the odds of writing a successful story in your favour. In a previous post I talked about the importance of a strong first image. In this post I want to suggest four types of starts employed by skilled writers.

Action Start

This type of opening immediately catapults us into the hurly burly of the tale, refusing to yield a static moment or slackening in intensity or pace. Movies such as Speed and Die Hard are renowned for this kind of action early in the first act.

Shock Start

This opening typically highlights the formidable powers of the antagonist and by implication, the danger this presents to the protagonist. The explicit sex scene in Basic Instinct, for example, demonstrates the antagonist’s ability to use sex to manipulate the men around her, culminating in a shocking murder.

Contrasting Character Start

These openings immediately highlight the differences or incongruities between two lead characters and help to sustain interest throughout. In Lethal Weapon Riggs is a suicidal special forces cop whose crazy tactics conflict with the traditional approach of aging cop, Murdoch, who just wants to retire in one piece and with the minimum of fuss. Their contrasting styles drive the entire movie.

Twist Start

These openings mislead the audience or reader into believing one thing only to discover that quite the opposite is true. In The Matrix the lead character, Neo, is introduced as a hacker and merchant indulging in illegal activities as a way of life. We soon discover that this life is an illusion, and Neo is potentially the saviour of mankind.

Summary

Action, shock, contrasting character, and twists openings are just four types of starts used by writers to hook readers or audiences into their stories.

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More on Dialogue Subtext

Road sign

Subtext

For our purposes, subtext in dialogue, as we’ve learnt from previous posts, is the layer of meaning hiding beneath the obvious. Subtext is what makes dialogue rich through hint and innuendo and is an indispensable part of accomplished writing.

Although there are many techniques for generating subtext, in today’s post, I’d like to explore two important ways which may assist you in doing so.

The Lie

Often, a character talks about actions or occurrences as if they’ve actually occurred in the manner described, when he or she is, in fact, lying about them. There are several ways to do this. The wider sense of a lie in terms of subtext can be characterised by a sense of evasiveness, obscurity, deceitfulness, deviousness, denial, sneakiness, slyness, trickery, scheming, concealment, craftiness, denial, change of subject, and the like.

So, when one character asks of another: “Are you telling me the truth, yes, or no?” and the other character replies: “Have I ever lied to you before?” one has the sense that the answer is evasive because it fails directly to answer the question, parrying instead, with another question.

The overall context of the subtext in this example, is, therefore, The Lie, but is specifically modified by a sense of evasiveness, although any one of the other modifiers in our list could suffice, depending on the context.

Manipulation

Another useful category for subtext is that of manipulation. Here the character says one thing when her or his real purpose is surreptitiously to manipulate another character in order to achieve a certain secret objective. Specific instances that are associated with manipulation are: being corrupt, conniving, concealing, sowing suspicion, secretive, crafty, underhanded, shifty, shady, unethical, and the like.

Fred: “I thought you told me your wife was visiting her parents in New York for the week while you looked after the kids?”
Jack: “She is.”
Fred: “Strange. Must’ve been mistaken then.”
Jack: “What do you mean?”
Fred: “It’s nothing. Sorry I mentioned it.”
Jack: “Spit it out.”
Fred: “Well…It’s just that I thought I saw her getting into a limo on Sunset Boulevard early this morning as I was leaving a club. Clearly I need new glasses.”
Jack: “I thought you just got new glasses.”
Fred: “I did.”

In this example, Fred sows the seed of suspicion by suggesting Jack’s wife might be playing around without Jack’s knowledge. He offers a flimsy excuse for being wrong, then destroys the excuse by implying that there’s nothing wrong with his vision.

Summary

Lying and manipulating are two layers of subtext that enrich any piece of dialogue. Use these techniques, when appropriate, to imbue your dialogue with rich layers of meaning.

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