Tag Archives: writer

How to Break Through Writer’s Block

Writer's blockWriter’s block. It happens to all of us at some point or another.

It happened to me while writing my award-winning novel, The Land Below. One minute I’m conjuring up a storm, full of plot plans and enthusiasm for the characters in my story, the next I realise that a month has passed without my having added a single word to the text.

I had succumbed to writer’s block – that insidious creature that slouches in the shadows hoping to snatch our muse away and keep her prisoner in his dungeon.

But writer’s block, no matter how persistent, needn’t mean the end of our writing careers.

Breaking Through Writer’s Block

They say that genius is ninety-nine percent hard work and one percent inspiration, and they’re probably right.

Without the force of habit, hard things seem harder to do: Training in the gym. Getting up early for work – just skip exercising for a week, or return to work from a long holiday, and you’ll see what I mean. That engine just doesn’t want to turn over. There’s just not enough spark left in that battery.

So, what to do?

You could just give up and walk away. Have a drink. Take up table tennis.

Or, like persevering with a car that won’t start, you could put your back into it and push. Never mind that the road is flat and narrow without a hint of a downward slope to make things easier. Never mind that there isn’t anyone to help you steer. If you want that engine to start, you just have to push until you gain momentum.

So, it is with writing. You have to fight the inertia. Grit your teeth and place those fingers on the keyboard. Write something. Anything. Heck, write about how much you hate writing.

Sure, what you write might be silly, uninspiring garbage that no one wants to read. But who cares? Silence that inner critic and push on.

Five minutes today. Maybe ten tomorrow. Twenty the next. Just get back into the habit of writing, and inspiration be damned.

Set yourself small goals – increase time spent daily at the keyboard. Pay no attention to the quality of the output just yet. Just write, write, write.

Suddenly, perhaps when you least expect it, the engine will turn. It might take several days. It might take a month, or longer. But inevitably, that engine will start and you will find yourself back in the driving seat steering the car down the road.

And don’t be too surprised, if, a mile or two along, you happen to stop to pick up a hitchhiker, wearing a tee-shirt with a large M on the front, who spins you a yarn about kidnappings and dungeons, and how she escaped them both.

Summary

Beat writer’s block by writing through it, one bit at a time, one day at a time.

What is the Hollywood Story Structure?

Hollywood signI am a big fan of story structure, especially the structure of stories intended for a commercial audience, and nobody does commercial better (or worse – when it misfires) than Hollywood.

As I have noted before, when thinking about a commercial story, I sometimes lay out the skeleton of a tale before commencing the writing itself. At other times I have the structure tucked away in my mind, so that I am only subliminally aware of it. Yet, its presence, in some magical way, guides my hand.

But what is story structure anyway? And how should one go about learning its secrets?

There are many books and articles written on the subject, including many on this site, drawn from a wide range of respected sources. One can hone in on the details, and study the workings of the inciting incident, the first and second pinch, the first and second turning point, the midpoint, the climax, and the resolution, and certainly, one would be more enlightened for it.

But sometimes, I prefer to talk about structure, especially to those who are just embarking on their writing journey, in a more accessible, common sense way.

The Hollywood Story Structure in a Nutshell

I have come across many descriptions that capture the essence of a good conventional tale, (I sometimes refer to such stories as Hollywood stories), but here, for its brevity and simplicity, is one of my favorites. I quote from Scott Meredith’s book, Writing to Sell:

“A sympathetic lead character finds himself in trouble of some kind and makes active efforts to get himself out of it. Each effort, however, merely gets him deeper into his trouble, and each new obstacle in his path is larger than the last. Finally, when things look blackest and it seems certain the lead character is finished, he manages to get out of his trouble through his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity.”

Much can be learnt by thinking carefully about several key words in this passage – sympathetic lead, trouble, active efforts, deeper into his troubles, larger than the last, blackest, finished, out of trouble though his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity. Each contains important kernels of insight that helps make for a successful story.

For us to care for the protagonist, for example, he must be sympathetic. We wouldn’t give much of a damn for Hitler, now would we?

For us to be drawn into the story itself, the character must also be in serious trouble.

Further, this trouble can not remain static. That would render it boring. For us to stay interested, the tension needs to increase and the problem needs to worsen.

You get the idea.

Commercial structure, then, orders an interconnected set of events about a sympathetic character facing an almost insurmountable problem in a way that conspires to keep the audience engrossed in the story.

So there you have it. Three sentences, taken from Mr. Meredith, that sum up the structure of a commercially viable story to get you started on that next Hollywood screenplay.

Summary

Hollywood story structure refers to an arrangement of interconnected events about a sympathetic character facing a difficult problem in a way that conspires to keep the audience engrossed in the story.

Storyteller: Plan or Write from the Gut?

What sparks a storyteller

What sparks a storyteller?

As a storyteller and teacher I come across two types of writers – those who work from a meticulously rendered synopsis or treatment, and those who write from the gut.

There is much to commend both approaches, depending on the personality and mood of the writer, and the medium the writer is writing in.

Screenplays require a more planned approach – the precise placement of the inciting incident, turning points, the climax and resolution. This particular framework typically plays out in a two hour film that does not allow for non-essential embellishments. After all, each additional scene ultimately costs thousands to shoot and edit. A lot of unnecessary writing in search of a purpose, even at the draft stage, is an unprofitable use of time.

A novel is somewhat different. Although this form has also felt the impact of the modern screenplay, with some novelists choosing to eliminate lengthy character rumination and plot diversions, the form does allow the freedom to dig deeper in ways that the screenplay simply can not afford.

A novelist may start with a seed idea, a genre, and a character with an aching need to fix some present or past wrong, achieve some insatiable dream, and take it from there. Some novelists believe that providing they have such markers tucked away in their minds, they can confidently unearth their stories as they go along – that they can write from the gut.

Of course, there are exceptions. Ken Follett writes draft after draft of detailed and accurate treatments of a story, prior to his commencing the writing of the novel itself. It is a method that has clearly worked for this best-selling author.

My own view is that for some of us, dwelling too long on a treatment once we have a version of it, may blunt the writing when we finally do sit down to deliver the tale. So much of the magic, especially in a novel, happens spontaneously at the level of imagery and expression – in bits of plot and image that combine in serendipitous ways to create roads and highways that advance the plot in ways that we can not predict. This, at any rate, has been my experience.

Which approach do you favour, and why? Write in and let me know.

Summary

One storyteller may meticulously preplan her stories before commencing the actual writing of her tale. Another may launch right away, using a number of markers to guide her hand.

Great Writers Have This In Common

Great writers

Leo Tolstoy – one of the world’s great writers

What makes great writers great? I’ve ruminated on this topic before, but the subject is so fascinating that I find myself revisiting it each time I read or reread a truly great story.

There have been many great writers throughout history: Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and later, Hemingway, Golding, Faulkner, Steinbeck, and many others writing in a multitude of languages across the world.

Most of these writers differ significantly from one another in style and subject matter. So in what sense can they be said to share the same appraisal?

What makes a writer great, anyway?

And why is it that so many remain relevant today when the world they lived in, the manner and style of their writing, has changed? Just compare Shakespeare to Hemingway, for example.

Something timeless must surely be part of the lense through we recognise great writing. It must be something that not only focuses on the historical context, but locates in the work an immediate relevance to today’s society, despite the anachronisms and eccentricities of language and nationality.

It can not be style alone, although all great writers have it in abundance, because style succumbs to anachronism.

Nor can it be solely form, because form evolves with time. Linear story telling, for example, is increasingly competing with non-linear forms.

The essence of great writing therefore has to contain something that excludes change from its definition because it is already fully evolved.

The set of universal values, perhaps?

Great Writers and Universal Values

Although many academics argue against the objectivity of universal values, I believe that they do exist and have always done so. Great thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, Siddhartha Gautama and Mahatma Gandhi have, in one way or another, argued that core values do not fall out of fashion or become irrelevant. Fairness, generosity, compassion, and love form some of the values which ennoble us as a species and whose absence or negation exposes the worst in us.

Throughout history great writers have been humanity’s conscience precisely because they recognise the timeless relevance of those values. They write stories that track the consequences to societies and individuals when love is supplanted by hate, generosity by greed, duty by ambition – when the values that make us human are ignored or negated: A Cathedral’s newly added spire that threatens to collapse under the weight of pride (The Spire), the families and villages that are torn apart by greed (The Pearl), the blind ambition that leads to the murder of the rightful king and the eventual death of his usurper (Macbeth).

It is this tireless affirmation of universal human values that renders great writing immortal and perpetually relevant to us all. Long may it continue to do so.

Summary

Great writers write stories that affirm universal values.

Distinguishing Between the Hero’s Inner and Outer Motivation in Stories

MotivationDictionary.com defines motivation as ‘the act or an instance of motivating, or providing with a reason to act in a certain way.’

As a technical device in stories motivation can be understood as something that involves two interwoven aspects – inner and outer persuasion.

Motivation Within and Without

Typically, the hero’s inner motivation springs from his mental life – his values, needs, background. These elements, in turn, guide the physical actions that arise in response to some outer challenge or opportunity, in other words, his outer motivation.

Importantly, it is the outer goal that first catches a reader’s or audience’s attention, ordering the events of the story in a visceral way – as in a story about a man who uses his superpowers to try and save the world. Any inner persuasion lies beneath the surface of the tale and is revealed as the story progresses. The outer motivation, then, is the initial cause that starts the hero down a certain path.

Inner motivation, however, is important because it helps to keep the hero’s physical actions to that path. Together, outer and inner motivation form an integrated unit – the description of the event-driven action and its justification.

The Terminator, for example, is about a waitress who wants to prevent a time-traveling cyborg from murdering her. That is her outer goal. But her ability to do so needs to be grounded in her traits of resilience and determination.

Ghostbusters is about a fired university researcher, and his team, who wants to make cash by ridding clients of ghosts. Acumen in the paranormal field and the need to survive in a harsh real-world environment outside the university result in the creation of a ghost-busting business.

In Breaking Bad, Walter White’s desire to provide for his family in light of his seemingly fatal illness, drives him to cook meth. But as the story progresses we realise that he is increasingly propelled by a desire to regain the power and reputation he lost when he sold his share of his company years previously, for a pittance. In one telling moment, he demands of a dangerous drug distributor, “Say my name!”

The hero’s inner and outer motivation, respectively, then, can be understood as his physical response to the goal, guided by his reasons for doing so.

Summary

Inner motivation explains why the hero physically responds to some challenge or opportunity, outwardly, in the way that he does.

How to Make Your Story Believable

Believable Characters

The utterly believable Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot

How do you make the characters in your films and novels believable?

In his book, Film Scriptwriting: A Practical Manual, Dwight V. Swain offers us two principles that underpin verisimilitude in stories – justification for everything that happens in the tale and a proportional response from the character to the events that confront him.

Believable Characters

Justification boils down to the readers and audiences believing that given a specific personality type, a character would react to a challenge, to any sort of stimulus really, precisely in the way that he does. In short, if your readers understand why your character acts in a specific way, they will experience his actions as believable and appropriate.

But it is also important to render a character’s actions in proportion to the stimulus that initiates them.

Exaggerated, unmotivated behaviour, under normal circumstances, can spoil a scene. If a girl turns down a casual request for a date from a man she hardly knows and he then proceeds to burst into tears, his behavior would be considered an overreaction.

If, on the other hand, a child were to run into a room, screaming and bleeding, and her mother were to ignore her in order to finish her bridge game, we would consider her behaviour as an underreaction.

Over and under reactions are major flaws that undermine believability in stories.

In Some Like It Hot, the director, Billy Wilder, was asked why he opened the film with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. He explained that he needed to provide the audience with a powerful reason why the two musicians, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, would dress up in girls’ clothes (used to generate the many priceless moments in the film). Their need to hide their identities from the mob makes their behaviour credible.

Summary

A character’s actions will be believable if they are justifiable and proportional to the event that initiates them.

Conflict through Dilemma in Novels and Screenplays

DilemmaWHAT sort of choice or dilemma makes for the best dramatic conflict in stories?

In his seminal book, Story, Robert McKee reminds us that the choice between good and evil or between right and wrong is not a choice at all. It might generate conflict at the level of the plot between the protagonist and his world, but this conflict is two dimensional.

Conflict Through Dilemma

McKee illustrates the point by asserting that Attila the Hun would never be conflicted about invading, murdering, plundering. It is, after all, why he led his armies across two continents. He has no choice but to act in the way he does. It is only in the eyes of his victims that he is seen as evil.

In order to generate conflict within the character, as well as between him and those who oppose him – to make the conflict three dimensional – the character must experience a dilemma.

In the supernatural romance, Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, for example Dona faces a choice between a new husband who’s warm, secure, faithful but dull, and her old one who’s exciting, sexy, but dead – although he appears to her in the flesh and as insatiable as ever. She is caught between choosing a boringly safe life versus a mad, macabre, but emotionally exciting one.

In my bestselling first novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler has to choose between two conflicting scenarios. In a world that has been reset to eliminate the death of the woman he loves, he can declare his love for her once more, but risk the possibility, no matter how remote, of recycling the events that led to her death. Or he can keep his feelings for her a secret and eliminate any possibility of a risk. His uncertainty makes his choice a hard one, since there is no evidence to suggest that telling her he loves her would endanger her life at all. That is the nature of a dilemma – no clear choice.

Placing your protagonist in a dilemma, then, is a powerful dramatic technique that not only drives the plot forward, but makes the character’s actions unpredictable and engrossing.

Summary

Placing your protagonist in a dilemma generates inner conflict that escalates the tensions between himself and other characters in the story.

Writing Advice from Strunk and White

Writing adviceCONTINUING to mine Strunk and White’s, Elements of Style for writing advice, we learn that we should avoid verbosity and put statements in a positive form. That is, we should make finite assertions that avoid hesitant, ambiguous language – except when hesitancy and ambiguity are the intention.

So, “He usually came late,” instead of “He was not very often on time,” and “He thought the study of Latin a waste of time,” rather than “He did not think that studying Latin was a sensible way to use one’s time.”

Lastly, “The women in The Taming of the Shrew are unattractive. Katherine is disagreeable, Bianca insignificant,” not “The Taming of the Shrew is rather weak in spots. Shakespeare does not portray Katherine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare’s works.”

All three examples expose the weakness in wordiness that specifically flows from the use of the word “not”. Readers form a clearer, more vivid impression from a succinct description of what a thing is, rather than waffling about what it is not.

Not honest is better expressed as dishonest. Not importanttrifling. Did not rememberforgot.

You get the idea.

Here is a passage taken from The Nostalgia of Time Travel that illustrates how concrete language, sparse in its use of negatives, can catapult the reader into the world of a character – even when the character is unsure of what he is witnessing:

“Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse something small and white stuffed in between the branches of a jasmine bush at the bottom of the garden. A bird, perhaps, seeking shelter from the approaching cataclysm?

I winch myself up from the deckchair and trundle down the stairs. I wade through the garden and reach the spot. It is not a bird. It is a piece of cloth. A white handkerchief. I disentangle it from the branches, unfold it in my hands. There is a large “M” stitched in pink on the bottom right-hand corner. I press it to my face. The scent is unmistakable. This is Miranda’s handkerchief. It belongs to a set I had tailor-made for her as a gift. I’ve kept it in a shoebox alongside several other of Miranda’s personal items — a hair-clip, a broach, some letters we wrote to each other. I hardly ever open the box anymore. The encounter with the objects is too painful…”

In writing a story about nostalgia and regret I knew that I had to avoid using overly sentimental, indistinct language. I charged my sentences with punchy nouns and verbs as a safeguard.

Summary

Avoid using the negative case in your writing. Tell us what a thing is rather than what it is not. Do so with suitable nouns and verbs.

How to Contrast Scenes in Scripts and Novels

ScriptsHow many scenes are necessary in writing good scripts? In Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger notes that this number varies. Some have less than seventy five scenes, some more than a hundred.

In novels this number varies even more, with some of the greatest stories ever written running into many hundreds of scenes.

Contrasting Scenes in Scripts and Novels

Some scenes are extremely short. Those include establishing scenes such as a street exterior or the inside of a vehicle. These are meant to place the viewer or reader in a specific time and place. Others, engaged with plot and character development occur over several pages.

Film scripts that comprise of only a handful of scenes underutilise the potential of the film medium and are more suited to being rendered as a stage play. On the other hand, a ninety minute film that runs into hundreds of short scenes will feel frenetic, hurried, underdeveloped.

The secret to a well-paced story is to balance scenes through contrast. As a general rule dark scenes should be balanced by lighter ones, somber scenes with ones that are more joyful, and slower scenes with faster paced ones.

In Fatal Attraction, for example, Alex and Dan are languidly lying in bed together. Cut to the next scene which catapults us into lively dancing inside a loud jazz club. This prevents the sense of sameness that leads to boredom.

Contrast can also be created through intercutting. In Schindler’s List a wedding scene in the concentration camp is intercut with Schindler kissing a girl in a club, which, in turn, is intercut with the commandant beating Hellen.

In my own novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, scenes that enact the slow pace of a man in physical and moral stasis are contrasted with the immense force of a category five cyclone that threatens to destroy the protagonist’s world.

Summary

Contrasting the number and texture of scenes creates rhythm and movement. Failing to do so creates a flat line that leads to stasis and boredom.

Potent Language in Stories

Potent and moodySOME of the most potent writing advice comes from Strunk and White’s brief but perennially precious book, Elements of Style. In the chapter, Principles of Composition, we learn to ‘prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.’

Writers who seize and hold the reader’s attention by being definite, specific, and concrete number amongst the greatest – Homer, Dante, Shakespeare. Their writing is potent, in part, because their words render up pictures.

Here is an extract from The Zoo from a short story by Jean Stanford, a lesser known but nonetheless accomplished writer:

Potent Language

‘Daisy and I in time found asylum in a small menagerie down by the railroad tracks. It belonged to a gentle alcoholic ne’er-do-well, who did nothing all day long but drink bathtub gin in Rickey’s and play solitaire and smile to himself and talk to his animals. He had a little stunted red vixen and a deodorized skunk, a parrot from Tahiti that spoke Parisian French, a woebegone coyote, and two capuchin monkeys, so serious and humanized, so small and sad and sweet, and so religious-looking with their tonsured heads that it was impossible not to think of their gibberish was really an ordered language with a grammar that someday some philologist would understand.’

This is a powerful evocation of an environment, a personality, indeed, a world, and all done through the telling use of concrete and specific language. This language is not only useful in evoking an appropriate atmosphere in short stories and novels. It is also important when used adroitly in the ‘action block’ of screenplays, where brief, specific, and concrete language adds to the precise direction needed by actors, set designers, and set dressers to render scenes effectively.

Summary

Use specific, definite, and concrete language to write scenes that create mood and render up potent pictures in the minds of your readers.