Do Your Stories Feel Real?

Stories. One of the most real and touching moments from H.A.L’s shutdown in 2001, A Space Odyssey.
One of the most real and moving moments in the entire movie—H.A.L’s shutdown. 2001, A Space Odyssey.

One bit of advice we keep hearing is that our stories should feel real—that the characters they describe should be authentic.

But how does one pull this off?

An understanding of human nature does not necessarily mean that you can communicate it effectively in a story. The first requirement rests on observation, study and experience. The second assumes knowledge of the craft of dramatic writing. Both skills are necessary. Both are distinct.

Effective writing requires a mastery of techniques specific to the craft—techniques that allow writers to distill and transcribe their experience into stories that move us deeply. Being able to craft authentic characters is a step in that direction.

Characters who display likes, dislikes, foibles, specific values, and individual memories—characters that feel both unique and familiar at the same time resonate with us because we recognise ourselves in them.

Fear, hope, regret, loss, pain, and nostalgia are emotions we have all experienced at some time or another. Effectively evoking such emotions strengthens our involvement with a story.

“Characters who experience powerful emotions we recognise in ourselves, make for successful stories.”

Who can forget these lines spoken by the HAL 9000 computer as it is being shut down by Dave Bowman, in 2001, A Space Odyssey?

  • HAL I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a… fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.
  • DAVE BOWMAN: Yes, I’d like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me.
  • HAL: It’s called “Daisy.” [sings while slowing down, voice distorting]  Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy all for the love of you. It won’t be a stylish marriage, I can’t afford a carriage. But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.

The pathos that this passage evokes serves to humanise HAL’s character.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, 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 for a past that has slipped away, his memory of the breakfast he once had here with his wife, his love for Brazilian coffee, and his tacit condemnation of the new shopping centre, grants us a heart-felt snapshot of his mental and emotional state – a sense of ‘felt life’, which gives the story its sense of authenticity.

Summary

Imbuing characters with emotion is a powerful technique writers use to draw readers and audiences into their stories.

How to Write Memorable Dialogue

John Steinbeck, a master at writing memorable dialogue.
John Steinbeck, a master of memorable dialogue.

Memorable dialogue makes for a memorable story. It is both an art and a craft, and as such, warrants lifelong study.

Few would doubt that the ability to write great dialogue is necessary for crafting a successful screenplay, but should a novelist regard this skill as equally important?

Undoubtably, yes.

Although novels no longer lead the story market as they did a century or two ago, they do survive as an alternative vehicle for experiencing narrative.

Of course, competition from films and computer games has impacted how current novels are written, giving rise to a requirement for stories with a faster pace, higher stakes, and yes, impactful and gripping dialogue. Memorable dialogue offers the writer the opportunity to compete.

”Memorable dialogue draws us into the hearts and minds of the characters who express it, and it does so with immediacy and impact.”

The topic has inspired the writing of countless of books and courses, but here is a short list on what great dialogue should accomplish:

  • Dialogue should provide information necessary for the understanding of the story.
  • Dialogue should evoke story questions.
  • Dialogue should reveal emotion.
  • Dialogue should advance the plot.
  • Dialogue should characterise both the speaker and the person to whom it is spoken.

Here is an example from John Steinbeck’s, Of Mice and Men:

‘I forgot,’ Lennie said softly. ‘I tried not to forget. Honest to God I did, George.’

‘O.K.—O.K. I’ll tell ya again. I ain’t got nothing to do. Might jus’ as well spen’ all my time tell’n you things and then you forget ‘em, and I tell you again.’

‘Tried and tried,’ said Lennie, ‘but it didn’t do no good. I remember about the rabbits, George.’

‘The hell with the rabbits. That’s all you ever can remember is them rabbits. O.K.! Now you listen and this time you got to remember so we don’t get in no trouble. You remember settin’ in that gutter on Howard street and watchin’ that blackboard?’

Lennies’s face broke into a delighted smile. ‘Why sure, George, I remember that…but…what’d we do then? I remember some girls come by and you says…you say…’

‘The hell with what I says. You remember about us goin’ into Murray and Ready’s, and they give us work cards and bus tickets?’

‘Oh, sure, George, I remember that now.’ His hands went quickly into his side coat pockets. He said gently, ‘George…I ain’t got mine. I musta lost it.’ He looked down at the ground in despair.

‘You never had none, you crazy bastard. I got both of ‘em here. Think I’d let you carry your own work card?’

This dialogue, filled with pathos and authenticity, jumps right off the page, offering us an alternative experience to the current obsession with superheroes. It captures the tone and colour of speech, evokes backstory, and offers us a heart-felt glimpse into who these characters truly are.

You won’t get that kind of authenticity from the men and women who swoosh around the skies in capes and tights, now will you?

How many of the five elements of memorable dialogue mentioned in the list above can you find in this extract? Write in and let me know!

Summary

Memorable dialogue performs several functions simultaneously, driving the plot forward while simultaneously revealing the depths of the characters who express it.

Who is the Viewpoint Character in your story?

Nick Carraway as the viewpoint character in The Great Gatsby
Nick Carraway as the viewpoint character in The Great Gatsby

Stories are inhabited by many characters, each exploring the theme from a different perspective; only one, however, is the viewpoint character.

All characters exhibit a point of view, of course. And, indeed, one of the functions of a character archetype is to offer a glimpse of the moral premise as seen from a specific perspective. Typically, the hero, or protagonist, being the character through whom we most often experience the story, is one whose moral vision carries significant weight—certainly by the end of the story where maturation has occurred.

Sometimes, however, the hero is not the viewpoint character. The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway is a case in point. The plot does indeed revolve around Gatsby, but it is Nick Carraway who not only relates events from his point of view, but also transmits the moral perspective of the entire story.

It is important to identify the viewpoint character prior to commencing the writing of the story. Start by asking the following questions:

1. Which character is closest to my (the writer’s) point of view? Whose clear, moral perspective pronounces the theme of the story? In The Great Gatsby, Nick is this character—although the pronouncement is about Gatsby himself.

“A viewpoint character transmits the moral perspective of the story.“

2. Who has the biggest stake in the story and has the most to lose? Who cares most passionately about solving the story-problem? Your answers will point towards your point of view character(s). 

In The Land Below, Paulie, the protagonist, is the character with the biggest responsibility and with the most to lose, but the Troubadour offers the deepest moral perspective in the story—despite the secret he has kept from Paulie all these years.

2. Which characters are the most interesting or 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 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—we are uncertain whether he will choose to live or die by the end of the story. 

Summary

Create a viewpoint character by granting that character the moral perspective of the story.

Powerful Emotions – add them to your stories

Powerful emotions in Dead Poet’s Society.
Powerful emotions in Dead Poet’s Society.

Stories that do not engender powerful emotions are unlikely to be popular. Make us cry or make us laugh, but don’t make us yawn. This sentence should be tattooed on the forehead of every fledgling writer.

William M. Akers agrees with me: “Give the reader an emotional experience or you’re wasting your time,” he writes in his book, Your Screenplay Sucks.

But how does one master the use of powerful emotions in writing? For a start we should look for appropriate places to create emotionally charged moments as often as possible.

“Story characters who solicit powerful emotions in readers or audiences directly contribute to the success of any tale.”

In Breaking Bad, Walter White supplements his meagre teacher’s income by working at a carwash. The idea that someone whose work once helped a team of scientists win the Nobel Prize now has to teach chemistry classes to unappreciative high-school students captures our sympathy. But the writer of the TV series takes it a step further: A couple of students spot Walter at the carwash squatting on his haunches, polishing tires. We experience Walter’s humiliation directly and this causes us to empathise with him more acutely than before.

All emotions are worthy of being foregrounded providing they serve the character and story—compassion, sadness, fear, lust, joy. In Rear Window Grace Kelly arrives at Jimmy Steward’s house with an overnight suitcase. She opens it and we see she has packed a nighty. We swallow with anticipation, knowing she intends to sleep with him.

One of the most moving moments in all of cinema occurs in Dead Poet’s Society. Fired for encouraging students to think for themselves, John Keating is preparing to permanently vacate his beloved classroom under the critical gaze of the man who fired him. Suddenly, one after another, the students ignore possible expulsion and defiantly stand on their desks in support of him, calling out: “Oh, Captain, my Captain.” This is not only a victory for Keating and his teachings, but a hugely successful emotional moment, too.

Although we tend to remember many finely crafted scenes that reveal essential plot information, scenes that are supercharged with emotion we remember forever. 

Summary

Supercharge your scenes with powerful emotions, and do it often. Your stories will be all the more memorable for it.

Genres—what are they?

Mixed genres in Cowboys and Aliens.
Mixed genres, mixed messaging?

Genres are categories containing stories that share common characteristics. The categories themselves are not inflexible. They absorb novel features from other genres and adapt to suit.

For writers, genres are recipes for concocting tales based on past exemplars. The Western, for example, showcases a number of recurring elements, such as saloons, side-arms, and horses.

For audiences a genre is an indication of a certain sort of story.

“Location, time-period, clothing, props, and language are some important markers that constitute points of difference between genres.“

Yet, a genre is neither set in stone nor used exclusively in telling a story. In the Science Fiction/Western, Cowboys and Aliens, two ‘hard’ genres are juxtaposed unexpectedly, which, in this instance, might explain the film’s failure at the box-office.

Certain genres, however, combine seamlessly. Action/Comedy films such as Bad Boys, or Crime/Comedy/Love Story ones such as Crazy Rich Asians use genres so effortlessly that they almost manage to merge them into one.

Some films are even more prolific in their use of genre-mixing. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a Musical/Comedy/Horror/Science Fiction/Love Story, has achieved cult status, perhaps because it parodies categories of all sorts.

The evolution of genre, much like genetic evolution, involves successful stories passing on their genes to their offspring. Because there is a requirement for novelty and originality, however, the code never stays exactly the same for too long. Mutation creeps in, which, if successful, get passed onto the next iteration.

We see this evolution in the Western, for example, where the protagonist goes from being a tough and decisive man in El Dorado, to an ambivalent and racist one in The Searchers, and finally, to a full blown anti-hero in Unforgiven – a killer of women and children.

The purpose of genre, then, is to guide one’s expectations by referencing existing stories. Genre helps audiences choose which stories to consume by promising more of the same, as much as it helps writers reference and update old tropes.

Summary

Genres are story categories that share similar characteristics. Genres not only assist audiences in selecting which stories to consume, they also provide the writer with a blueprint to emulate and adapt.

Twin Premises – Planning Your Story

Macbeth and the twin story premises
Macbeth, like all great narratives, flows from
twin premises.

Most stories can be summed up through their twin premises. The one encapsulates characters and events, the other the moral message and its affects. But how does this work and why should a writer care?



For pantsers about to commence the writing of their story, the answer is that they might not care. Pantsers write from the seat of their pants, allowing inspiration to dictate their narratives.

Plotters, on the other hand, need to work out the story before hand, often meticulously planning every scene before beginning the actual writing of their screenplays or novels.

There are some, however, for whom the approach lies somewhere in between. Inspiration can indeed swoop in at any moment and take over the writing process, but in its absence, they need the security of a map. They’ve set sail too many times only to wash up on the rocks without one.

“The twin premises provide the blueprint for writing a story. The one premise indicates what sort of events need to occur and to whom. The other shapes the direction of these events into an outcome that reveals a moral lesson.“

An effective compromise, therefore, is to spend time thinking about the events and characters that would go into the story, while simultaneously trying to nail down the point of it all. Which brings us back to the first paragraph:

The Story Premise is a brief outline of the story that encapsulates the events generated by the central conflict, and the desire through-line of the protagonist. The story premise of Macbeth might be: An ambitious Scottish general embraces the prophesy of three old crones and the urging of his wife to murder King Duncan and usurp his throne only to succumb to guilt, paranoia and death.

This gives some indication of the major characters and narrative events that comprise the tale.

The Moral Premise, by contrast, is the theme of the story. It gives direction to the dramatic scenes that comprise the plot. In Macbeth this might be: Ruthless ambition leads to death and destruction while accepting one‘s place in the Great Chain of Being sustains societal order and life. Not a popular theme by today’s standards, but a central moral premise in the Elizabethan era, nonetheless.

The aim of the twin premises, then, is to create enough scaffolding to support the writing of a story. Both premises must be present for the story to work. Whether the yarn will turn out to be quite the Shakespearean masterpiece is, of course, another matter all together.

Summary

Most stories can be summed up through their twin premises. The one encapsulates characters and events, the other the moral message.

Gripping stories — How to Write Them

Homeland is one of the most gripping stories in recent times.
Homeland is one of the most gripping stories in recent times.

Gripping stories are a cloth woven out of the yarn of surprise. Surprises can be big or small. At the very least, they are unexpected but fitting events imposed on a character from the outside, or from inner pressures stemming from a character’s own values and fears.

Surprise is the antidote to boredom and the enemy of predictability. A fitting surprise is one that catches us unawares, but is perfectly authentic, soliciting an “I should have seen it coming” response.

“Gripping stories continually thwart our expectations through surprise and keep us engaged through suspense.”

Homeland, Season 8, (spoiler alert) contains a fine example of this technique—a series of twists woven together to form a substantial part of the story: Carrie has been instructed to try and retrieve the black box from the downed helicopter carrying the American and Afghan presidents. If the black box proves that the helicopter went down due to mechanical failure, rather than a Taliban rocket, a war between the United States and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, can be averted.

With US fighter planes closing in to bomb the site, Carrie Mathison instructs Max, who is part of a small ground force dispatched to investigate the crash, to try and acquire the black box from the helicopter. Max manages to do so, but (twist) Taliban fighters close in and pin him and his team down. When it looks like Max might get away with the device, he is captured by a lone Taliban soldier (twist), then shot trying to escape. He is taken to a house deep in Taliban country and tied to a steel bed.

“Gripping stories are by their very nature unpredictable.”

Carrie solicits the help of Yevgeny, a Russian agent with whom she has a complicated relationship, and manages to track Max down (twist), but the black box has been removed by his captors (twist). Together with Yevgeny, Carrie tracks the device down to an electronics chop-shop and pays the broker who has the item one million dollars for it. She manages to read enough information from the device to know that the helicopter crash was indeed due to mechanical failure. She and Yevgeny kiss and agree to work together in the future (twist). Carrie is about to leave with the black box when Yevgeny betrays her. He injects her with an anaesthetic and steals the device from her (twist).

“Another way to define surprise is as a sudden turn from the ostensible direction of the narrative.“

The main feature about these dramatic beats is their unpredictability. Although the goal remains the same—to find and return the black box to the United States and so avert a war with Pakistan—each new and surprising obstacle blocks the straight line to the goal and forces it to change direction. The result is a narrative that grips our attention.

Summary

Gripping stories unexpectedly turn reader and viewer expectations in ways that keep the narrative filled with suspense.

Superfluous Words – strike them from a sentence

Superfluous words—one of William Strunk’s best remembered admonitions.
Omit superfluous words—one of William Strunk’s best remembered admonitions.

In his book, Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. admonishes us to strike superfluous words from our writing. Our narratives will be more polished and energetic for it.


Here are some examples from his book:

  • The question as to whether / whether
  • There is no doubt but that / doubtless
  • In a hasty manner / hastily
  • He is a man who / who
  • His brother, who is a member of the same firm / His brother, a member of the same firm

“Superfluous words weigh down sentences, lessening their import and impact.“

I often castigate students for writing paragraph-long sentences that confuse the reader. I suggest that the remedy is to break up long sentences into shorter ones that build through logical progression and culminate in a telling conclusion. Sometimes, however, the reverse is true. A single, well-styled sentence can deliver more. Here’s another example from William Strunk:

“Macbeth was very ambitious. This led him to wish to become king of Scotland. The witches told him that this wish of his would come true. The king of Scotland at this time was Duncan. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth murdered Duncan. He was thus enabled to succeed Duncan as king.”

(Is reduced to:

Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth achieved his ambition and realized the prediction of the witches by murdering Duncan and becoming king of Scotland.

Brevity is even more important in screenplays, where a lean, tight style adds to a sense of pace—a requirement in many film genres.

Consider replacing wordy, action-block descriptions with punchier ones:

  • Blake’s hand flashes like lightning to the table, grabbing the gun from it and pointing it at Jake in one breathtaking movement. / Blake snatches the gun from the table and points it at Jack.
  • Matthew slows his pace down to jogging speed. / Matthew slows to a jog.
  • Bethany rushes up to the wall containing the largest window in the room and climbs on the sill. / Bethany rushes up to the largest window and climbs on the sill.

”Brevity leads to precision. Precision leads to a heightened reading experience.”

Do not repeat redundant information in a scene’s action block:

  • Burlap, now fully transformed into a werewolf, stomps into the room, thick muscles hiding under dark fur, fangs bared, great thighs ready to spring. / We already know what a werewolf looks like. Rather write: Bulap, now a warewolf, stomps into the room, ready to spring.

Although this cut-to the-bone brevity is less of a requirement in a novel than in a screenplay, all stories benefit through brevity and precision. 

Summary

Strike superfluous words from your sentences to make your stories leaner and punchier.

If not story formula, then what?

Story formula in Arrow
Series such as Arrow follow a tight story formula that blunts any sense of originality.

The increased access to countless films and television series available through services such as Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Apple, as well as the flood of audio books and kindle novels, has meant that we have been exposed to a repetitive story formula inherent in some genres. This has lead to predictability and boredom.

And yet, every great story does indeed contain a pattern, without which the story might degenerate into a formless puddle. So, how does one adhere to some sort of structure, without making such a structure predictable and stifling?

Here’s the reference I keep at the back of my mind when I want to avoid adhering a formula that ties my writing to a specific number of beats. I start writing about events concerning a hero who …

finds himself in a position of undeserved misfortune and finally decides to take action to fix the situation. But the harder he tries, the more he becomes entangled in a web of mounting stakes and deepening dilemmas, each, more dangerous and difficult than the last. This forces him to dive deep within himself for a better solution. In doing so, he discovers, at the last minute, a deep truth about himself which allows him to achieve his goal by tackling past misconceptions, moral flaws, and misguided plans.

“One way to avoid rigidity is to replace a story formula with a pattern. A pattern suggests an overall narrative shape that allows for more freedom. A formula tends towards predictable beats that suck the freshness out of a story.”

The interesting thing about this description of a story is that it has a beginning, middle and end, but avoids an overburdening and familiar structure that might make the beats overtly predictable. It also addresses both the outer and inner journeys through the character’s developmental arc. It does not sketch in any great detail where the turning points should occur—except in the most general way. This allows wiggle room for events to fall outside expected beats.

It also steers the outer journey through via the inner journey—through the decisions our Hero makes at pivotal moments in his growth, and hints at a universal truth: That the only way the Hero can achieve the outer goal is by attaining a moment of epiphany, a hitherto hidden truth about himself, that arises from the wisdom that comes from having faced near defeat.

Summary

A story formula is reductive and rigid. A story pattern suggests a general narrative shape that grants enough wriggle room to preserve variation.

Spiritual Growth and the Age of a Character

Spiritual growth in Seven Years in Tibet
Spiritual growth in Seven Years in Tibet

How does spiritual growth relate to the age of a character?

In Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger points out that older characters in stories experience a deepening engagement with values they might not have entertained during their younger years—values relating to spiritual growth.


Forty and Beyond

Maturity often brings with it a tension between the spiritual and the material in our own lives. Stories about evolving characters, therefore, tend to explore issues that have become more pressing because of the wisdom individuals have earned through experience.

Having achieved successful careers, sometimes at the expense of the inner life, some are ready to shift focus from material pursuits to a more spiritual approach, concentrating on such values as integrity, social conscience and enduring relationships. 

”Spiritual growth in a character often, although not always, goes hand-in-hand with a growing maturity associated with age. The stories we write containing such characters should reflect this possibility.”

Some characters even factor in self-sacrifice for the greater good as a viable course of action. Films such as Seven Years in Tibet, Ghandi, Erin Brokovich, and Norma Rae touch on this directly.

The point is that as we mature so does the focus of our attention—from the visceral pleasures granted by material success to the more selfless rewards of value-driven action: from receiving to giving, from competing to sharing, from holding grudges to forgiving. The value system of the characters we write, therefore, ought to reflect this age-related shift. Stories containing such characters will resonate with more mature audiences who recognise these values in themselves.

Summary

Stories about maturing characters explore themes that weigh up spiritual growth over material gain.