Tag Archives: writers

Keep it Simple, Stupid!

Man scratching his head while reading a book

Keeping it simple:

We’ve all read books and articles in which ideas rendered by verbose, obscure language are tied up into long sentences and knotted paragraphs.

I know I have.

When I started reading for my Ph.D on narrative structures I needed aspirin to keep the headaches away. I even considered going on antidepressants. How could I ever contribute to the field when I could not even understand the gist of what I was reading?

I understood the words of course. My problem was not a limited vocabulary. My problem was making sense of the convoluted way experts expressed themselves.

Their approach was to pack as much complexity, eccentricity, and obscurity into a sentence as possible; balance as many relative clauses on the back of the main clause and add as many qualifiers and modifiers to it as they could.

Do it consistently and you’d be allowed to join that exclusive club from which the common person is barred by default: The specialists club.

It was hard going but I stuck to the task. I remember the day of my breakthrough. I was sitting on the Ipswich train from Brisbane. The ride home was a good half-hour and I often used the time to catch up on my reading. I was wading through postmodernism and had previously failed to make much headway.

Then it happened. A particularly obscure paragraph suddenly flicked into focus. I blinked and read it again.

Yes, it definitely made sense. So did the next paragraph. And the next. Before long, I found I understood the whole chapter.

I quietly congratulated myself. I was no longer masquerading as an academic. I was an academic. I could not only understand the speak, I would soon be able to emulate it.

It was not long before my writing and speech adopted the mannerisms of a specialist. I solicited nods and smiles from fellow academics and frowns and head-shakes from everyone else.

I had arrived.

It was only years later, after niggling doubts about the usefulness of obscure forms of expression were fanned by my experience in lecturing college students, that I began to investigate the alternatives.

I poured over every style manual I could get my hands on—from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, to Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

I became convinced that language that explores difficult concepts and ideas need not in itself be difficult to understand. Clear and precise writing that illuminates rather than confounds, writing that is accessible to anyone with a mastery of English, is preferable even when discussing academic matters. This is not dumbing-down language. It is making it more democratic—surely the tacit goal of any discipline.

You may notice from this post that I have not quite managed to expel the very elements I criticise from my own writing. The road to brevity, clarity, and precision is strewn with detours, but I am trying to stay on it.

My students are always the first to tell me when I stray.

Summary

Aim for brevity, precision, and clarity in writing.

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: James Arboghast
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

How to Write your Pivotal Characters

Embroidery

Pivotal Character:

The respected teacher, Lagos Egri writes about the importance of the pivotal character in your story.

Although Egri may have seen this character apart from the protagonist or antagonist, I believe this type is one which encapsulates the traits described below.

This character may appear in one of several guises, and may appear as the antagonist, protagonist, love interest, sidekick, mentor, and so on. In determining who is to be the pivotal character in your story, decide who will force your characters into action.

The pivotal character forces the conflict from beginning to end. He is the motivating power, the cause of conflict in your story—the driving engine of all stories. He experiences no doubt within himself about his course of action and knows immediately what he wants. Othello’s Iago is such a character. His function is to force the conflict to the bitter end, never backing down. He is relentless because circumstances beyond his control force him to be so. If an honest man steals, it’s not for excitement or gain, but because his family is starving, or he needs money for an operation for his child.

Whatever the reason, it must be an overpowering one. If the pivotal character stops forcing the conflict, the story skids to a halt. The pivotal character usually seeks change because he’s dissatisfied. She aggressively and relentlessly tries either to change or to maintain her status quo. A well-crafted pivotal character holds nothing sacred and feels that nothing can prevent her from reaching her goal.

The pivotal character knows where he’s going, and tries to bend everyone to go his will. If the antagonist refuses to go along with him, therefore, it’s not because the pivotal character didn’t push him hard enough. The pivotal character is an obsessively focused individual who sees only his own goal. He is reactionary, militant and passionate. This applies to good men or women as well as it does to criminals.

Here are some characteristics that make for fine pivotal characters:

Someone who wants revenge on the man who ran away with his wife.

Someone who loves a woman madly but must make money first to marry her.

Someone who is willing to give his life for his country, which he loves more than anything.

Someone who is greedy. His greed sprang from poverty and he exploits others because he fears hunger.

Someone who will stop at nothing and will destroy others to achieve his goal.

Someone who desperately and obsessively wants to achieve success in a specific job or profession and will stop at nothing to achieve that goal.

Summary

The pivotal character in your story (who can be drawn from one of several types—protagonist, antagonist, love interest, mentor), is the character who forces others into action and drives the story forward.

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.

Image: Hey Paul Studios
License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode

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.

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.

Image by Barry Solow

How to Use Coincidence in Stories

Two butterflies

Coincidence?

Can a story contain a convenient coincidence without being deemed lazy and weak? After all, Charles Dickens’s work abounds with such narrative devices. I believe the answer is yes, but only if it is limited to one per story and is carefully woven into the tale.

Although life is riddled with what appears to be magnificent coincidences—the meeting of one’s future spouse by chance, the winning of a grand prize, the procurement of a lucrative job based on an impromptu internet search, stories are a different kettle of fish. Here, the reader or audience expects the material to be adroitly planned and crafted. A series of coincidences is viewed for what it is: laziness on the part of the writer.

In Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter, too, is of the opinion that coincidence can work if the writer makes it important enough, and has it launch or end the story as part of a main structural event, such as the inciting incident or turning point.

In Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July, for example, well-intentioned pals fool a friend into believing that he has won a contest. In the end, it turns out that he actually has won the contest. Why does such a coincidence work? Partly because it is the only one in the film, and partly because it spins on a deliciously crafted irony.

In The China Syndrome, Jane Fonda and cameraman Michael Douglas, happen to be filming a story at a nuclear station. Something malfunctions at the plant and they record the incident. Here the coincidence is not offensive.

Imagine, however, if, in seeking to add twists and turns to the tale, the writer had introduced a scene in which the footage was lost or destroyed. The crew then returned to shoot more material, when, lo and behold, another nuclear mishap occurred! Audiences would be outraged. What worked the first time around would not work again because such a coincidence would be unimaginative and repetitive.

Summary

A single coincidence works best early or late in a story, spins on irony or surprise, and forms part of a major structural event such as the inciting incident or the first or second turning point.

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.

How to Merge Story Strands

Traffic sign

Merging Journeys

In seeking to find an effective way to highlight the unity that exists between the outer and inner journey in a story, both in my own writing, as well as in my teaching, it struck me that the structural pivots in a tale (the inciting incident, the turning points, the midpoint) precisely provide for such an opportunity. They are the knots that tie the outer and inner strands of the tale together.

The outer journey, we are reminded, recounts the beat-by-beat occurrence of external events as the Hero struggles against mounting obstacles to achieve the visible goal of the story—preventing the bomb from going off, winning the girl, or the boxing championship, rescuing the kidnapped victim, and so on.

The inner journey, by contrast, is the internal path the Hero takes to enlightenment or obfuscation, depending on the genre of the story, as he initiates or reacts to the outer journey’s challenges, surprises, achievements and setbacks.

The structural pivots combine an outer and inner event into a single motivated action. Lagos Egri, one of the most lucid teachers on the craft of dramatic writing explains that the inner journey is the “why” to the outer journey’s “what”. In short, ensure that your turning points, including your midpoint, describe external events of sufficient magnitude that cause the Hero to react in a way that is in keeping with his current/evolving inner state.

Is it preferable, then, to let the inner state, or, journey, trigger the outer event, or should it be the other way around? I don’t think there is a definitive answer to that question—either will do, just as long as both through-lines end up being tightly interwoven.

In Rob Roy, Liam Neeson’s character accepts his wife’s unborn child—a result of her being raped by an Englishman, because of who he is: a man of immense conviction and inner strength, just as he fights and wins a sword fight against the fop, the expert English swordsman, despite being outplayed at the end, again, because of this inner strength and conviction.

In Braveheart, William Wallace accepts knighthood at the midpoint of the story. This motivates him to move from being an isolationist who merely wants to be left alone to farm with his family, to a national leader who takes the fight to the English. The knighthood ceremony is a perfect fusion of an outer and inner event—as a knight he now has a moral obligation to fight for those who fall under his protection.

Summary

The major pivot points are the perfect place for the writer to ensure that the “why” merges with the “what” in her story. Such pivot points offer the perfect place for the inner and outer journeys to merge and support each other.

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.

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.

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.

How to Write Character Descriptions

Painting of man smoking pipe

Character Description:

In a typical screenplay, character descriptions should be written when the characters first appear on the page. These descriptions should be brief and to the point. This post looks at this often misunderstood aspect.

There are only two things to establish about a character from the outset–gender and age. Laborious, pedantic descriptions about specific physical attributes, cars and pets, musical instruments played, should be avoided. If a characteristic is crucial to the story, state this succinctly. If, for example, one of your characters, say, Ben Brandt’s graceful movement somehow ends up saving his life then foreshadow this in your description of him: Ben Brandt was built like an army barracks shithouse but moved with the grace of a ballerina.

Lengthy, unmotivated descriptions slow the forward thrust of the story and betray the writer’s inexperience.

So why do so many writers include them in their screenplays? Because it is far easier to describe a character’s varied physical attributes and traits than to reveal them adroitly through dialogue and action in a scene.

Reference to physical stature, hair colouring, and weight, therefore, are only relevant if they foreshadow aspects of the plot, such as the stutter that causes the murderer to trip up at the end, or the lack of height that motivates a man to over-achieve in other areas.

This extends to emotional traits as well. Indeed, one of the best ways to make emotional and physical traits germane to the story is to interweave them and have them explain some future aspect of the character’s action(s).

This brevity of description extends to the novel and short story too, for much the same reasons. In her wonderful book on the craft of the short story, Inside Stories for Readers and Writers, Trish Nicholson offers us several examples of this skill. In Modus Operandi she describes a character’s physical size: “A big man, too–he had to duck under doorways. His hands were as wide as dinner plates. To see those long fleshy fingers you’d realize the strength in them.” This description is not only germane to the story but it foreshadows menacing aspects of the plot.

Summary

Character descriptions should be brief and germane. Describe only those traits of a character that serve as triggers to the plot, and do so succinctly.

Understanding Positive and Negative Story Space

Positive and Negative Space:

In art, say in the painting of a portrait, positive space is the area occupied by the subject. The background, or surrounding material, represents negative space.

Stories and scenes can also be thought of possessing these two characteristics. The story itself, the action, events and dialogue can be seen as positive space. It is everything that is “viewed” on the screen, or read on the page. But the characters and the world they inhabit do not begin on page one and end on the last page. There is a sense in which they, and the world they inhabit, exist prior to the story commencing and that they continue to exist after the book or movie has ended, in the mind of the reader or viewer, at least. This aspect may be considered as constituting negative space.

In The Godfather II, Michael sits alone, isolated from family and friends, staring into emptiness, yet we feel that his life will continue past this point. In my forthcoming novel, The Level, a man wakes up in a pitch black space, bound to a chair, with no memory of who he is and how he got there. Clearly, the backstory here is germane to our understanding of his situation and to the plot in general—negative space. How far this negative space extends in either direction varies greatly. This aspect differentiates it from positive space, which concerns itself with the “finite” past and the “here and now”.

In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter suggests that another way to view this is as story versus plot, with story being the negative space which exists beyond the start and end, and plot which concerns itself only with actual occurrences on the screen or page—positive space.

Determining the boundaries between negative and positive space helps the writer find the true beginning and end of her story, as well as what to leave in or omit, right down to the level of a scene. This aspect of the craft is perhaps one of the most difficult to master but one of the most rewarding, once acquired.

Summary

Positive space concerns the actual words on the page, or shots in a movie. Negative space is the material that exists in an unstated but necessary form in the mind of the reader or viewer in support of the plot itself.

Writers’ Winning Ways

Winning Writing Habits

Although neither sacrosanct nor replete the list below reveals some of the winning habits of writers and creatives across the world.

1. Enjoy and celebrate your creative journey—the mistakes too. Goethe once said: “By seeking and blundering we learn.” Sound advice indeed.

2. Read voraciously. Stephen King reminds us that if we don’t have time to read, we don’t have time to write. Watch plenty of good movies too. If novels and short stories teach us about the inner journey, as well as character complexity and depth, movies teach us about pace, the outer journey and economy.

3. Join a writer’s group for networking, information, feedback and moral support.

4. Know your industry. Read dedicated magazines, subscribe to relevant blogs and websites. Try to learn something new about your craft each day.

5. Dispel negativity from your writing life, despite the growing number of rejection slips. Dean Koontz garnered 75 such slips before his first sale. Each book or screenplay represents enormous effort, dedication and faith. Negativity eats away at your resolve, self-belief and energy. It has no place in your process.

6. Write regularly—every day if you can. Not each session has to produce inspired or superlative work. The point here is to support the writing habit and it will support you.

7. Don’t second-guess, or edit your work while writing. Let the material pour out of you. Correcting and polishing are for the editing stage.

8. Be persistent and committed. The great concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz once said: “Never give up, never give up, never give up.” You shouldn’t either.

9. Believe in yourself and in your abilities. If you don’t, why should anyone else?

10. Learn to take criticism. Feedback, fair or foul, is requisite and inevitable. Paz Octavio, the Mexican poet and writer said: “What distinguishes modern art from the art of other ages is criticism.”

Summary

Becoming a successful writer often involves traveling down a long and difficult road—it is not for the faint-hearted. Fostering healthy habits that develop and sustain stamina ought to make your goals easier to achieve.

Talking the Story

Writer

Trish Nicholson

Today I have the honour and privilage to host a special post by a truly erudite and inspiring writer: Trish Nicholson.

Trish writes narrative nonfiction and short stories, some of which have won international competitions and are analysed in her latest book Inside Stories for Writers and Readers. She is also a social anthropologist and author of travelogues. Trish lives in New Zealand. You can follow her on Twitter @TrishaNicholson and visit her tree house on her website at http://trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com

Take it away Trish…

Trish: Thank you Stavros. I’d like to start with the idea that although film and the short story may each employ different strengths to tell a particular tale, what they share is greater than their differences.

“Short story and film are expressions of the same art, the art of telling a story by a series of subtly implied gestures, swift shots, moments of suggestion…”(H .E. Bates).

Dialogue is especially significant in this respect. By eavesdropping on what they say, readers and viewers hear characters’ desires and intentions directly from the source. Crafted with care, verbal exchanges demonstrate character traits, emotional states, relationships with twists of deceit, manipulation and asymmetry, and they reveal facts and motivations that push the plot.

‘Talk’ that achieves none of these is idle chatter that clutters the story and slows the pace.

In Inside Stories for Writers and Readers, I unpick dialogue in a couple of stories, explaining the role of each spoken phrase. The following excerpt shows how much can be conveyed through a few lines of dialogue within a 100-word micro-fiction. In this story, a couple sit at a table in a train-station café. A tramp occupies the same table and lifts his T-shirt to scratch flea bites.

“Let’s move,” you hiss.

We learn the character being quoted is probably intolerant of tramps. A tag had to be used because no one has spoken up to that point and there are three people at the table, but the ‘hiss’ not only tells us how the words were delivered, but that the narrator seems to have a negative attitude towards the comment, or the speaker – to use ‘whisper’ instead, would have given a whole different meaning and character hint.

“There’s still an hour,” I say.

It is unlikely that the tramp would have spoken this, so the tag is not necessary in that sense, but it provides the symmetry of ‘you said/I said’ to point up the rejoinder that deliberately ignores the subtext of the other speaker as to the reason for moving: there is underlying tension here.

We’re starting over: going on a second honeymoon – to Torquay.

This suggests problems in the past but the inner voice of the narrator is optimistic, and gives vital plot information – where they are going and why.

“You’re always so obtuse.” I feel your spittle spatter my face.

The choice of ‘obtuse’, while apt anyway, was made especially for its spittle-delivering qualities. The use of ‘always’, like ‘never’, is argumentative and again indicates a history of conflict. The spittle comment is not needed as a speech tag, but it up-grades the speaker’s anger and paints a visual picture of the scene.

You get the Brighton train.

The narrator’s inner dialogue describes an important action in the plot, and the one word “Brighton” tells us there will be no second honeymoon (the significance of “Torquay” earlier). [The Last Train].

Summary

Dialogue helps us to create vivid scenes; to emulate the immediacy of film by revealing crucial aspects of our stories directly through the words and actions of characters.

Stavros: Once again, I want to extend a special thank you to Trish Nicholson for agreeing to share with us her considerable knowledge of the craft of writing.

Trish: It’s been my pleasure Stavros.