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.

What Do You Write About?

Fountain pen nibIN a previous post I asked the question: Why do we write? The answers were as varied as they were numerous – from a need to express oneself to the need to make money. This week I want to chat about a follow-on question: What do we write?

Ostensibly, the answer seems uncomplicated, depending on the reasons we write. Some of us write in certain genres because that’s what our readers have come to expect of us. But genres constrain, to a certain extent, what we can write about. A western most typically features the countryside, guns and horses, cowboys, saloons, and the like, which is not to say, of course, that such stories are not varied, especially if one keeps genre-mixing in mind. Cowboys and Aliens comes to mind here.

Then there are those writers who do not stick to specific genres, but dwell in the mystical spaces between them, writing in what they consider to be a more literary style. These stories tend to distinguish themselves less through the pizzaz of depicted events and more through the style, language, and a closer focus on the detail.

But the distinction between literature and entertainment is not always a useful one. After all, literary stories also entertain, and there may be literary moments in genre fiction.

For me the answer to what we write, what our stories are really about, lies in the theme. It is the theme that determines whether a story is facile or profound.

Is the theme a cliché meant merely to entertain us or does it enrich us by making us recognise something we have failed to understand before?

Scarab, for example, is a tale involving a mystical Sphinx-like creature, a quantum computer that can change the laws of physics, and a maniacal killer dressed in black. I had hoped to write a yarn that was entertaining and thought-provoking and, judging by the comments of my readers, it appears that I succeeded. Scarab became a bestseller in Amazon’s sci-fi category and stayed there for a couple of years.

The Nostalgia of Time Travel, by contrast, is a more literary story. The narrative is imbued with emotions and everyday events that we all recognise from our own lives, no matter what our particular circumstances might be. You’d think that the two novels are very different. And in terms of style and pace, you’d be right.

But under the surface, both novels deal with isolation, sacrifice, but most of all, they deal with the wonder and excitement of scientific and artistic discovery – they deal with similar themes.

Answering the original question with this approach in mind, then, I’d say that I write about recurring themes that interest me. The style, genre and specific narrative events are a secondary concern.

Perhaps you hold a similar view?

Summary

The theme is what a story is really about.

Does the Novel Have a Future in this Gadget-Crazy World?

LibraryThere was a time that I was not as upbeat about the future of reading as a form of entertainment as I am now.

The desktop computer was the hot topic of the decade, driving the burgeoning games industry and a torrent of spectacular special effects movies to greater and greater heights, while book sales steadily decreased. How could the written word stand up to such a challenge?

Sure, screen and game writers were assured of a bright future, but what was to become of the poor novelist? Could she expect smaller and smaller slices of the loaf until she starved to death?

As things turned out I need not have worried. The tablet revolution, sparked by kindle, and taken up by the likes of kobo, iPad, and android devices, would be the game changer.

Suddenly, people who had drifted away from books, especially the youth, found it cool to be reading on brand new technology. It satisfied their fascination with gadgets. Tablets started popping up from a range of manufacturers. Reading was the winner, which, of course, was good news for writers, although not without hiccups.

Any major upheaval in the established order creates instability. As companies continue to experiment on how best to bring writers, readers and their products together they make mistakes. Writers are often on the receiving end.

Publishing houses, too, are having to adapt to ensure survival. The landscape is continually changing making it difficult to predict what’s next. Opinions fly around with detractors and supporters of traditional versus electronic publishing fighting it out in countless blogs and forums. My attitude is that as long as people keep reading, whatever the format, I’ll keep writing.

In the meantime, I am optimistic about the novel. After all, stories will remain an important part of life no matter what.

Summary

Stories are a necessary part of life. Write them. Read them. Enjoy them.

Invitation

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

Do Your Characters Have ‘Felt Life?’

Man's faceOne piece of writing advice we keep hearing over and over again is that the characters in our stories should be authentic – that they should exude a sense of verisimilitude.

But this is easier said than done. It takes years of meticulous observation of people to grow a sufficient understanding of their motives, fears, hopes, and goals, and even then, there’s no guarantee that this understanding can be communicated through a story in a way that makes it feel authentic. If that were the case, EVERY lawyer or psychologist would automatically become a bestselling author or Oscar-winning screenwriter. There have been some successful writers emanating from those illustrious professions, but by no means all. Why?

The truth is that writing requires techniques specific to the art of writing. Technique, in this sense, is the method of distilling an author’s experience of the world into a story that convinces the reader of its authenticity.

One way to achieve this is to imbue your characters with a sense of ‘felt life.’ The idea is to have your characters effervesce a pervasive sense of their likes, dislikes, values, and individual memories and foibles, so that they spring to life.

Here’s an example, drawn from my latest book, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, in which the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, describes his love for a specific cafe located in Mission Beach on Australia’s east coast:

“There is a small cafe off the beaten path near Mission Beach in the north that makes the best waffles I’ve ever tasted. Miranda and I once had breakfast there, as newlyweds, while on a tour across Australia and the place stuck with me; but that was a long time ago.

These days you know the shop is there, even though it’s hidden by trees and shrubs and clamping bamboo that sways five metres tall, because the scent of freshly ground Brazilian coffee can keep no secrets.

The tables, now mostly vacant, are covered with green tablecloths with cigarette burns. The chairs have thatch seats that creak when you sit down, though never enough to spoil the constant stream of blues and jazz on vinyl from a Philips turntable. The walls are strewn with dusty black and white photographs of the town before they found coal, a few kilometres up the road.

Not many people drift into O’Hara’s anymore. They built a pier nearby with the coal money and a three-level shopping centre, with more parking than there are people in the town. It’s filled with glass and chrome restaurants, bars and shops, and the place now draws much of the crowd away. I’m still a regular customer though.”

Benjamin’s sense of nostalgia, his love for Brazilian coffee, and his tacit condemnation of the new shopping centre, built out of coal money, which has more parking than there are people in the town, grants us an effective and concise snapshot of his personality – a sense of ‘felt life’ which gives the story its verisimilitude.

Summary

Make your characters more authentic by imbuing them with a sense of ‘felt life.’

Invitation

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

Who Are The Point-of-View Characters in Your Story?

MankinsA screenplay or novel is typically filled with several characters, in addition to the protagonist. One of our tasks as writers is to know who the viewpoint characters of our story are going to be.

Here’s a short list, drawn from Margret Geraghty’s The Novelist’s Guide, on who they are and how to craft them:

1. Ask yourself: which of my characters have the biggest stake in the story I’m trying to tell? Have the most to lose? Care most passionately about solving the story-problem? Your answers will indicate who your point-of-view characters are.

In The Land Below, Paulie is the character with the biggest responsibility and with the most to lose. But the Troubadour, too, has high stakes centered around a secret he has kept from Paulie all these years. Both are point-of-view characters who seize and hold our interest.

2. Which characters are the most interesting? The most intriguing? These are the characters the reader or audience wants to know most about.

3. Which of the characters are most involved in driving the action and the story forward? Passive characters are the least interesting and tend to slow the story down.

4. Which characters are the most complicated? Complex characters hold our attention through their unpredictability, complexity and depth. In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos is such a character in the sense that we are uncertain whether he will choose to live or die by the end of the story.

Point-of-view characters are indispensable in creating interest, intrigue, and movement in our stories. They are the vehicles through which our readers and audience experience the story.

Summary

Craft point-of-view characters by making them complex, interesting, active, and with the most to lose.

Invitation

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

Do You Like Your Stories Up Close and Personal?

Lonely man on pierContinuing from last week’s article drawn from Margaret Geraghty’s The Novelists’s Guide, we look at the pros and cons of using the first-person technique in storytelling.

Despite its restrictions, the technique has many strengths to commend it.

When The Catcher in the Rye was first published in 1951 readers were so convinced of the actual existence of Holden Caulfield, the story’s fictitious narrator, that they scoured the streets to find him. The author’s use of youthful speech patterns, exaggeration, present tense, and slang imbued the work with a sense of fluency and authenticity that would be hard to create through the more common third person past tense narrative.

The Nostalgia of Time Travel, my soon to be released novella, concerns the struggle of an aging theoretical physicist, Benjamin Vlahos, to unite two grand theories – General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics – in one grand theory of everything.

Additionally, Benjamin is haunted by the loss of his wife that occurred thirty years previously, blaming himself for inadvertently creating the chain of events that led to her death. To make matters worse, one of the most powerful cyclones to ever threaten the coast of Northern Queensland in Australia is closing in.

As these events wind ever closer together, interspersed with fragments of memory, theoretical speculation, and a haunting sense of loss, the narrative becomes increasingly nostalgic, ethereal, and tense.

I chose to use the first person present tense for the following reasons:

1. The technique lends itself to a colloquial style which encourages a sense of collusion between the reader and Benjamin. We are made privy to Benjamin’s hopes and fears in a more immediate and direct way than is otherwise possible.

2. Because this style uses natural, fluent, speech patterns, it is less likely to descend into pretension, pompousness, and purple prose. It is also a lot easier to read.

3. Since I’m addressing the reader directly, I do not need to use intrusive speech tags. This suits a story of introspection that is driven by emotion and the tension of physical peril caused by the approaching storm.

4. Secondary characters are richer precisely because they are projected from a single viewpoint. When the young Benjamin, thinking back to his youth, says of his uncle, ‘I wished I was bigger so I could pack his bag and shove him out of the house,’ we experience this through the eyes of a six year old child and forgive him his prejudice.

5. On the down side, the protagonist has to be in every scene and the thoughts and feelings of other characters have to be filtered through his viewpoint. But again, because characters are experienced through the heart and mind of our protagonist, we are given more opportunities to explore his soul through his misunderstandings, and through irony, pathos, and humour.

5. Another criticism is that the technique forces the repetitive use of ‘I’. In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, however, the frequent use of the word adds to the sense of pathos, stasis, and eccentricity of the protagonist, as seen below:

‘I wipe my reading glasses with my handkerchief to ensure they are free of smudges, squeeze them back on my face, and tilt my equations this way and that. I dot my i’s and cross my t’s. I make sure my pluses are not really minuses resulting from a lack of concentration. I sip another cup of coffee and spread more syrup over my waffles before I study the math again.’

Summary

Use first person, present tense narration to invoke a powerful sense of authenticity, immediacy and intimacy.

Invitation

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

What is Multistrand Narrative?

Man spinning woolAs writers of novels or screenplays we are familiar with using character, setting, dialogue, plot, and genre, to convey theme, mood, and moral premise of our stories.

But to what extent do we utilise narrative structure itself to reflect these last three elements?

In my Ph.D thesis, Multiform and Multistrand Narrative Structures in Hollywood Cinema, I point out that the canonical structure comprising of a beginning, middle, and end, first elucidated by Aristotle, involving a single plot and protagonist pursuing a specific goal, is not the only way to tell a story.

Multistrand stories, also referred to as ensemble, thread-structure, and multiple-plot narratives have become increasingly common in the past few of decades. Woody Allen’s films, for one, tend to employ this structure, as do romantic comedies such as Love Actually, Sex in the City, He’s Just Not That Into You, Valentine’s Day, and dramas such as Crash, Babel and Syriana.

Distinct from multiform narratives such as Donnie Darko, Jacob’s Ladder, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which use multiple realities to keep us off center, multistrand stories portray the bewildering simultaneity and multiplicity of contemporary life by intercutting independent stories together, without subsuming them under a single plot.

Instead, equally-weighted strands cohere through a common theme. Each features its own protagonist and explores an aspect of the premise — love heals, for example — by having each individual story reach a similar or contrary conclusion.

Laying down several strands within a limited number of pages affects how much time the writer has available for introducing the various characters, and how those characters are portrayed. Vignettes tend to be the order of the day, here. Complexity within each strand, too, is kept to a minimum since the audience would have difficulty in keeping track of multiple plots involving multiple protagonists.

Taken together, however, the sheer number of independent strands encodes the bewildering intricacy, befuddlement, and moral ambiguity of contemporary life in a way that, perhaps, a conventional three-act structure fails to do. And therein lies the point.

Summary

Multistrand stories encode the bewildering multiplicity of contemporary life in their narrative structure.

Invitation

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

Image: Sukanto Debnath
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Small Acts of Kindness

Man giving man coinsOne of the most important things I learnt as a writer is that without knowing how to solicit emotion through my characters, I’d fail to draw readers into my stories and keep them there.

Emotion ties us to a story. It associates us with the characters who evoke it. It is the foundation upon which we build the whole cathedral, because if we don’t care about the characters, we won’t care about the story.

Emotion does not always have to be rendered on a large canvas. Sometimes a culmination of smaller brush-strokes is just as effective as a grand gesture, especially when applied unexpectedly.

In my most recent novel The Land Below, released on Amazon in February, a minor character, the bitter and unlikable Miss Baithwate prevents an old man from visiting a boy, his only friend in the world. She asks him to leave her hostel, accusing him of making the place look untidy.

But as she watches the old man limp away, she suddenly changes her mind and invites him in. She hides this random act of kindness under a gruff tone and a crusty demeanour, but the old man recognises the good in her, referring to her as his dear Miss Baithwate.

Not a major incident in the story, but one which adds to the reservoir of emotions.

I remember feeling a tinge of sympathy for the lonely spinster when I added this small twist — a tinge I would not have felt had she allowed the old man to leave without seeing the boy.

Miss Baithwate suddenly sprang to life on the page for me. She was richer, deeper, more likable after this act. And so was my story.

Summary

Small acts of kindness deepen character and enrich any story.

Image: Chris Yarzab
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

How to keep your story interesting through reversals

Arrow and sun graphicKeeping our story interesting as we navigate towards the major pivot points (the inciting incident, the first and second turning points, the midpoint, and climax), takes some doing.

This is because we need time to lay out essential information and perform certain tasks in support of character development and plot that will only pay off later. But this may cause interest in our story to wane. Reversals are one way to keep our readers or audience engaged.

Reversals are well-placed surprises. No story can really function without them. They occur when you create a certain expectation in the reader or audience, only to surprise them a moment later with another:

1. A child enters an abandoned house on a dare and hears a sound coming from the steps leading down to the basement. Suddenly, a shadow appears on the wall, growing impossibly larger. The child shuts her eyes, unable to face the source of the shadow. After what seems an eternity, she hears another sound and opens her eyes, only to discover that the shadow is cast from a mangy cat caught in a slither of light from below.

2. A mother enters her daughter’s room to find the bed empty and the window wide open. We assume by her expression that her teenage daughter has snuck out of the bedroom, despite being grounded. The mother hears the toilet being flushed and smiles with relief, but the smile quickly evaporates when the bathroom door opens and a young man exits, followed by her daughter.

Here, within the space of a few seconds, we have two reversals that keep us engaged through the mechanism of surprise.

3. In The Wild Bunch a robbery results in a tremendous gunfight. Lucky to get away with their lives, the robbers reach safety and open the bags to count their loot only to discover they are filled with washers. This is both a reversal and a pivot point since it changes the plot. We should remember, however, that reversals are most useful when applied to smaller dramatic beats, since major turning points are potentially interesting enough on their own.

Summary

Reversals are dramatic beats placed between major turning points of a story designed to keep interest from flagging.

Image: Nicolas Raymond
Liecence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

How to Spark your Info Scenes

Lighter sparks
Sparking your Scene:
How many times have we come across this scenario? Our hero needs to uncover information about someone, or something. She googles, goes to her local library, zips through old newspapers, records…

Yawn.

In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers suggests the only memorable thing about such a scene would be if the computer blew up in her face, or a library shelf collapsed and hit her on the head.

Staring at computer screens, or paging through records makes for static scenes. It is much better to have your character corner a grumpy librarian and try to solicit the information from her, or try to bribe a shady cop, or talk to the local priest. Now, you not only get the information necessary to drive your story forward, but you layer the scene with tension or humor via the subtext rooted in the reluctant informant. The result is a richer, more dramatic and entertaining event. Even if your character fails to extract the information, she generates added interest.

In Chinatown, Jack Nicholson has to deal with a sour, officious clerk. He asks if he can check out a book of records from the facility and is told this is not a lending library. He then asks the clerk for a ruler. “A ruler?” the man snarks back. It’s to help keep his eyes focused on the lines of text, Nicholson replies. The clerk slaps a ruler on the desk in front of him. Nicholson grabs it and hurries back to the records book. He coughs loudly, simultaneously tearing a page from the book with the aid of the ruler.

Good writing!

Not only does the hero get the information he needs, he makes a fool of the unlikable clerk. The scene works on two levels — plot and drama.

Interaction between characters is always superior to mere eyeballing of screens, or flipping through pages in a book. Scour your story for scenes which only serve the plot and try to inject human conflict into them, even if that conflict is small, as in the above example. Your scenes will be better for it.

Summary

Information gathering in a scene can become boring if not handled right. Extracting information from another character is superior to extracting it from the internet or a book. At the very least, have your hero try to convince others to help him acquire it.

Invitation

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

Image: Sadi Santos Photography
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode