Tag Archives: writers

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 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.

Amazon, Mon Amour!

Glances and hearts

Amazon Love:

In today’s post I want to pay a personal tribute to Amazon. Now, I do realise that it is sometimes unpopular to align one’s self with a large institution such as Amazon, an institution whose operational style might be seen, by some, as predatory. But, with all due respect to contrasting views, I make no apology for this.

No. I don’t own shares in the company, nor do I work for it—although, I do, in a real sense, work with Amazon to achieve my personal goals.

Let me explain.

Some fourteen years ago, whilst working as the resident screenwriter for Elmo De Witt Films in South Africa, I wrote a short novel called Scarab. A fellow South African writer read it, liked it, and recommended it to his publisher at Perscor. The book generated interest with the local branch of the company, but before it could go further, the branch closed down and some of its staff relocated to Cape Town to form a new company. The South African economy was shaky at the time, and businesses were folding one after another. This was during the early days of Nelson Mandela’s Apartheid-free South Africa and the country was excited, nervous and focused on more important things. I was advised to try to find another publisher, failing which, I should contact the Cape Town group and take it from there.

I never did.

I was eyeing Australia at the time, busy with my graphics and animation company, and somehow, I let things slide. I suppose the fear of rejection also played a role.

As time slipped by, I found myself teaching and studying in Australia, while a little device called the Kindle gathered in strength and popularity. The thought occurred to me that there was no harm in updating my novel (the pentium processors mentioned in my old revisions of Scarab were now passé), with the view to publishing it on Amazon.com as a Kindle ebook. And so I did.

I’d love to say that the rest is history, and offer some rags-to-riches story, but, sadly, that wouldn’t quite be the truth. What is true, however, is that since that day, I haven’t looked back. Scarab performed better than I had ever expected, hitting the #1 spot in the bestseller list in High-Tech Scifi, both at amazon.com and amazon.co.uk. And some two years later, the novel is still holding a place on the same bestseller list, while its off-spring, Scarab II: Reawakening, has staked its own bestseller claim on amazon.co.uk.

The effect of this small gift of success was to grant me confidence that with enough hard work, output and dedication, I could eventually earn a living solely through my writing. What a rush for any writer!

The truth is that without Amazon’s global reach and innovative vision for the future of books, its research and development, its success in making reading “cool” again for the younger generation through the introduction of its Kindle tablets and software, Scarab would have remained a pile of pages on my shelf, placed in a box, gotten lost, and Scarab II would never have seen the light of day. My dream of being a writer might never have materialised—not for me, and perhaps, not for many other authors who have trodden a similar path to mine. This has been an opportunity for which, I, for one, am deeply grateful.

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What is a Cover Reveal?

Red scarab
Cover reveals are an important part of marketing your forthcoming novel, short story collection, or non-fiction book, especially if you are an independent writer publishing on such sites as Amazon.com. Great covers spark interest in your work, and together with a release date (which may vary from days to a couple of weeks), help to create anticipation in your readership.

A well designed book cover seizes one’s immediate attention. At its very best, it captures, in an impactful and compelling way, the essence of your story, its central themes and elements, its chief conflict, and projects a defining emotion.

Opinions vary on specific styles, but obviously, genre and period have a lot to do with informing the look and feel of your cover. These considerations extend to the font used for the title and other text that appear on it.

My own preference is for simple bold images that rip through to the essence of the story. In my first novel, Scarab, a large red scarab, placed against a grey background to set it off, suggests the Egyptian link in the story, while the bright lights behind it variously suggest stars, or even, spacecraft lights, invoking the science fiction elements in the tale.

My follow-up novel, Scarab II: Reawakening, (which is being released on the 20th of June next month through Amazon), is based on roughly the same cast of characters as the first, and continues the established visual pattern, but introduces the images of a spherical object and a computer circuit board behind the now familiar red scarab, to highlight important elements in the tale.

The central thrust of Scarab II: Reawakening concerns a misinterpreted warning from an alien object found in the Drankensberg mountains of Natal, South Africa. A visual display from the orb seems to confirm the coming destruction of the earth by a super solar flare, as prophesised by various doomsday cults across the world, and the protagonist, Jack Wheeler’s, attempt to find and use the quantum computer, introduced in the first book of the series, to try and prevent it.

As illustrated above, a short summary of the story, and information about the author (if none is available elsewhere on the website), ought to accompany the cover reveal.

Once these elements are in place, you are ready to promote your cover reveal through as many mouthpieces as possible: certainly facebook, twitter, your website, fellow bloggers through announcements, author and character interviews, and blog-hops, and, last but not least, through the pre-sales option on sites such as amazon.com.

That done, sit back, have a cappuccino, or some Earl Grey tea, or something stronger if you must, cross your fingers, and wait for those first reviews and sales figures to come in.

And remember to breathe.

Summary

A cover reveal is an important part of your book’s marketing campaign. Use it judiciously, together with a release date, to help promote the launch of your book.

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The Craft of Creative Writing

Pen and paper

Creative Writing:

Those who have taught, or lectured on creative writing, specifically the novel or short story, will remember being asked, at some time or another, that pertinent but most difficult of all questions: What constitutes good writing?

The question is pertinent, of course, because that’s what teachers of the craft purport to teach. It is difficult because people have been trying to provide a definitive answer to it since first picking up chisels and quills.

As this blog is primarily aimed at giving advice on how to get the structure of stories right, I thought I’d offer my five cents on the topic of good writing in order to avoid giving the impression that structure is all that’s important to the craft.

Level 1: Spirit, Heart, and Mind

In teaching the craft, I like to separate it into three areas. The first concerns learning about the spirit, heart, and mind of the times and our part in it. It concerns sharpening our powers of observation, being alert to contemporary ideas, ideals, and issues, bringing compassion to our social critiques, and learning to address old themes in new ways while acknowledging the value of the old in the new. These insights stem from our level of maturity and can not be hurried. They grow at their own pace, although they may be shepherded.

Level 2: Story Structure

The second area concerns the structure of the stories. Does your tale have a beginning, middle, and end? And if not, why not? Are the turning points, pinches, midpoint, climax, resolution, and so on, crafted in a way that encourages interest, suspense, and surprise? The trinity of spirit, heart, and mind without structure is like a ship without a rudder. The ship may be loaded with treasures, but it will eventually crash on the rocks and sink.

Level 3: Words and Sentences

The third area has to do with mastering the craft at the micro level. Are we using vocabulary and figures of speech appropriate to our subject? Are we invoking powerful textures, pictures and sounds with our words—using all five senses to do so? Words with an Anglo-Saxon origin, for example, are grittier and more tactile, depending on the context, than their Latin counterparts—so, ‘gut’ instead of ‘stomach’, and so on. Are we using short snappy sentences or long and mellifluous ones? It all depends on how we want to render our tale.

In my opinion, these three levels constitute the overall craft of writing. In different hands they give rise to the individual ‘voice’ of the author. Although most authors don’t ordinarily map out their novels in levels, this approach is, none the less, useful when it comes to studying the craft of creative writing.

Summary

Excellence in writing involves mastering three levels, the spirit, heart, and mind of the times and the self, the macro, and the micro level of the craft. Together they give rise to the ‘voice’ of the author—the mark of his or her individuality.

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How to Write Backstory

Whispering

Backstory

In this follow-up post we look at a very important aspect of effective storytelling—backstory. The following question immediately comes to mind:

Q: When is it useful to include backstory in your screenplay or novel?

A: When information from the past is needed in order to make sense of the present and future.

Three Principles

1. In writing backstory consider the following: Is it absolutely needed?
2. Is it economically executed?
3. Does it blend in seamlessly with the rest of the text?

Necessary Information

Include only information that is absolutely necessary to your story.

In a chilling early scene in Inglorious Basterds, for example, we learn that the SS’s Colonel Hans Landa’s mission is to find missing Jews in the French countryside whom he suspects are being protected from by French Farmers.

Economically Executed

Always try to deliver backstory in the most economical way.

In the same film, some of the backstory is revealed through Landa’s sinister, if well-mannered, speculation, interlaced with subtle threats to the dairy farmer’s family, that he suspects Perrier LaPadite of hiding a Jewish family under the floorboards of his farm house. The dialogue, therefore, does double duty: 1. It reveals the reason Landa is interrogating LaPadite—he is aware of the French dairy farmer’s sympathies for his one-time Jewish neighbours. 2. It increases our suspense because the backstory becomes an indispensable part of the interrogation with an immediate threat to the farmer and his family.

Seamless Blending

Backstory blends seamlessly into the tale when it surreptitiously manages to drive the plot forward—as in the above example—rather than halting it In order to reveal background information. Because it becomes part of the forward thrust, there is no interruption to the story’s relentless march towards the climax. Interest and tension is actively maintained.

Summary

Backstory works best when it helps, rather than impedes, the forward-thrust of the plot. The three principles mentioned above provide a useful checklist in this regard.

How to Orchestrate Story Rhythm

Orchestra conductor

Story Rhythm

In his book, Story, Robert McKee offers good advice on how to manage story rhythm. This post explores this very important technique.

Story Rhythm

Story rhythm arises when values within a section of narrative alternate in charge. This can happen within a single scene, between scenes within an act, and between correlated scenes within different acts. McKee reminds us, for example, that the two most powerful scenes in a story are the last two act climaxes. Seen as a unit, they orchestrate a crucial rhythm, which can only arise if the value of the one scene differs from the other.

If the Hero achieves an aspect of his goal at the end of the second act, the climax of the next act must be negative—she must fail to achieve her goal in some important way. In the words of McKee, “You cannot set up an up-ending with an up-ending… (or)…a down-ending with a down-ending.” Things can’t be great, then get even better, or bad and get even worse. That’s slack storytelling devoid of tension. If you want an up-ending, set up the previous act’s climax to yield a negative charge, and vice versa.

Irony as Climax

If a story climaxes in irony, however, the result is an ending that contains both positive and negative charges, although one value tends to gain prominence over the other. McKee offers the example of Othello as an illustration of this. In the play, the Moor achieves his goal/desire to have a wife who loves him and has never betrayed him with another man (positive charge). But he only discovers this after he has murdered her (negative charge). The overall effect is one of negative irony. Positive irony is achieved when the positive charge prevails. In the film of the same name, Mrs. Soffel (Diane Keaton) goes to prison for life (negative irony). But she does so having achieved her life’s desire of having achieved a transcendent romantic experience (positive irony).

Summary

Story rhythm is established when important scenes alternate in value. If a scene ends with a negative charge, its correlating scene must end in a positive one, and vice versa. This, of course, need not be on a scene-by-scene basis. Correlation can exist between scenes that are separated by many others. Typically, the penultimate and final climax scenes are correlated, as are many others.