Category Archives: Creating Anticipation in Dialogue

Five ways to make your novel a page-turner!

The MacGuffin

The MacGuffin in North by Northwest
The MacGuffin in North by Northwest

What is meant by the MacGuffin in stories, who came up with the term, and how do we use it to capture the imagination of our readers and audiences?

No, the MacGuffin is not something you order at McDonald’s. Nor is it a man in a kilt. To understand what it is, let’s start by looking at one of the most legendary film directors in history, Alfred Hitchcock. In his classic, North by Northwest (1959), we witness the magic of the MacGuffin in action:

Roger Thornhill, played by Cary Grant, is an innocent man caught in a web of intrigue and espionage. Here, the MacGuffin is a microfilm containing top-secret government information.

“The MacGuffin is the narrative device the story needs in order to exist.”

Specifically, the MacGuffin is a term coined by Hitchcock himself to describe an object, goal, or plot device that drives the story forward. But here’s the thing—its true nature is often unimportant. It is a place-holder, a variable in the program’s code as it were, an instrument used to sustain the plot and to motivating the characters.

Zip forward to 1989 when another iconic filmmaker, George Lucas, brilliantly uses the MacGuffin in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Dr. Henry Jones Jr., (Harrison Ford), embarks on a quest to find the Holy Grail. The Grail is a powerful MacGuffin, sustaining the story’s action from start to finish.

MacGuffins come in all shapes and sizes—a suitcase filled with mysterious documents, a precious diamond, or an alien object. What makes them powerful is the emotional punch, plot and character motivation that flows from them. Importantly, MacGuffins aren’t meant to be too elaborate or too detailed—that would risk exposing them as mere devices.

The MacGuffin continues to be a force to this day in games, novels and movies. Take the ring in Lord of the Rings. It is a tiny object that disrupts whole nations and communities, and has them fight over it.

Remember, then, it’s not about any particular MacGuffin. It’s about making the chase and struggle, the development of the plot and characters in your stories, the best they can be.


The MacGuffin is a powerful instrument in the storyteller’s toolkit. Use it to sustain, add resonance, intrigue, and tension to your stories.


Four keys to writing epic characters

Dent’s Secrets in The Dark Knight
Dent’s Secrets in The Dark Knight

Vivid, unforgettable characters lie at the heart of any great story. Here are the four keys to unlocking them.

1: Powerful Desires/Goals/Needs

Giving your characters, especially your protagonists, powerful desires, goals, and needs will drive any story forward. One of the best examples of this is found in the iconic movie The Shawshank Redemption. Andy Dufresne’s relentless and persistent desire to escape from the Shawshank Prison drives the entire plot, keeping us engaged from start to finish.

We see this at work in countless of novels, too. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet’s desire for love and independence in a society that pressures women into marriage motivates the entire story.

2: Secrets

Secrets add depth and intrigue to your characters, making readers and viewers eager to discover the truth. In the film The Dark Knight Harvey Dent’s character harbours a hidden darkness which transforms him into Two-Face, with dramatic consequences.

And who can forget, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, a series in which Jon Snow is a character with a mysterious lineage that sustains speculation and curiosity throughout the story.

3. Contradictions:

Giving your characters contradictions, introduces complexity and conflict into their psychology, which renders them more interesting and relatable. In Fight Club, the narrator appears as an office worker by day and a rebellious anarchist by night, embodying the complex duality within all of us.

“Use the four keys to help you write great characters that endure.”

In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch showcases a deep contradiction—fighting tooth and nail as a lawyer for justice in a deeply prejudiced, divided society while simultaneously finding the space and resources to be a loving father. His integrity and vulnerability make him one of the most beloved literary characters of all time.

4: Vulnerabilities

The final characteristic is vulnerability. A character’s vulnerability allows us to connect with him or her on a deep, emotional level. In Inside Out, Joy learns that it’s okay to show vulnerability by feeling sadness. This vulnerability is a crucial moment in her development as a person.

In the Harry Potter books, Harry’s vulnerability stems from his fear of rejection after years of mistreatment by the Dursleys. This helps not only make him a hero but a relatable and endearing character, too.

Use these traits in film and literature to breathe life and fire into your characters.


The four keys to writing epic characters are: Powerful goals and desires, secrets, contradictions, and vulnerabilities.


Symbols – your secret power

Symbols in  The Joker
Symbols in The Joker

What are symbols, and how can we use them to prolong longevity, add resonance and depth to our stories?

In his book, Man and his Symbols the renowned psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung wrote: ‘What we call a symbol is a term, a name, or even a picture that may be familiar in daily life, yet that possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning. It implies something vague, unknown, or hidden from us. A word or image stripped of its connotative aspect is a mere sign—it denotes or points to an object or event that has no added significance than its function—such as a chair, a table, and the like.” 

The strength of symbols, especially symbols that emerge from the unconscious to manifest as Archetypes, is that they endure. To put it in another way, as primordial remnants bubble up from the human unconscious, they are expressed by the conscious mind as universally applicable archetypal symbols. They do so by cleaving to specific actions, events and objects in myths and stories.

“Symbols, when rendered adroitly, promote the longevity of any story.”

To generate symbols in your own tales, start with story and character: 1. Ask, what is the genre of your story? 2. What is the key idea, theme, and moral premise of your story? 3. What goals and struggles are your characters engaged in?

The answers to these questions will direct you to the sorts of symbols you need to use. A note of caution here. Your symbols shouldn’t attract attention to themselves—they shouldn’t be too obvious. They need to grow on us as vessels of meaning. They also need to be specific and to generate emotion. The key here is to work out how they relate to the characters and to each other: Are these symbols actual objects that would feature effortlessly in the characters’ everyday lives? Again, subtlety is key.

Here’s how Todd Phillip uses character symbols in his film, The Joker:

The film opens with Arthur Fleck applying his clown make-up. We don’t immediately ascribe symbolic significance to this. Arthur is merely preparing to do his job as a clown. But as the story progresses the clown imagery deepens in meaning, driven by story questions: Why is it that after Arthur loses his job, he continues to wear his clown make-up? Is it that it offers him an escape from his dreary reality? Does it have deeper psychological connotations—indicate his rejecting his identity due to some past trauma that makes him wish that he was someone else?

“Well crafted symbols are universal and eternal.”

The figure of the clown now comes to symbolise the breakdown of social structures in Gotham—the conflict between the rulers and the ruled. The mob dons clown dress and rises up against the authorities, with the Joker, as inspiration.  A clown suit and mask are no longer symbols of fun and laughter—the Joker has become the symbol of something dark and dangerous—the symbol of chaos.

Symbolism can also emerge from setting, providing context, atmosphere and bolstering the theme. In The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Mordor, as opposed to the idyllic life of the Shire, is shown to be a place of hellfire and horror—the entire landscape is symbolic of the evil represented by Sauron. 

And of course, the rings themselves are highly symbolic, with the last ring being especially significant. Having been forged by Sauron on Mount Doom it represents pure evil. But the ring also symbolises desire and greed. We see this clearly in Bilbo and Gollum’s desire to posses it.

The ring also symbolises temptation. Even honourable characters such as Gandalf and Boromir are tempted by its beguiling power. This temptation gains in resonance by reminding us of the original temptation in the garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate from the apple of good and evil.

When deploying symbols remember to show rather than tell, to point them towards your key ideas and themes, to select symbols that give rise to emotion, and to avoid being heavy-handed in their use.


Use symbols to add resonance, meaning and depth to your stories.


Masters of Subtext

As Good as it Gets - Screenplay: James L. Brooks, Mark Andrus masters of subtext.
As Good as it Gets – Screenplay: James L. Brooks, Mark Andrus masters of subtext.

I just can’t stop talking about the necessity of becoming absolute masters of subtext. Dialogue that ripples with subtext jumps right out of the page and declares to the reader—I am an accomplished writer. Keep reading.

If direct dialogue tells us about the literal meaning of the words—their denotation—subtext reveals the meaning behind the words—their connotation. Subtext is a far more engaging way of having the character reveal information because it lets the reader or audience into a secret, or at least, into the deeper layer of meaning that makes them feel more connected to the characters and the story. It does not spoon-feed the reader, as would direct dialogue.

“Masters of subtext stand out from the crowd. They are consummate writers of dramatic speech.”

There are many ways to write subtext, one of the most important being The Cover-Up. It may use a change of subject, a lie, a misdirection, a question, a threat, and the like, to achieve its goal. These techniques occur downstream, but first let me remind everyone that there are three chief areas to any dramatic text: 1. direct text, 2. its deeper meaning, and 3. when this meaning is to be conveyed to the reader or audience.

In As good as it Gets, we see Melvyn, who despises dogs, put the neighbour’s animal down the garbage chute in the hallway outside his apartment. We should note that the subtext can be (1) revealed before the actual subtext dialogue occurs, (2) during or (3) after the dialogue. Notice that here we already know that Melvyn has done the deed before the exchange with his neighbour, so we experience it as a Cover-Up.


SIMON, the dog’s owner, rushes down the hall just as Melvyn is about to enter his apartment.

SIMON: Verdell? Here, good doggie…

He notices Melvyn at the end of the hall.

SIMON: Mr Udhall…excuse me. Hey there! Have you seen Verdell?

MELVYN: What’s he look like?

Here, Melvyn uses the technique of The Cover-Up by asking a question. But since we already know that he has stuffed the dog down the chute we know that he is lying. To spell it out: Melvyn’s denotation is: ‘What’s he look like’, feigning engagement. But the actual meaning is: ‘I got rid of your dog and I’ll lie so as not to get caught.’

Imagine if the scene had started with Simon looking for his dog. Melvyn’s question about what the dog looks like would then appear as if he was being helpful. When the truth was revealed later that Melvyn did indeed do it, the subtext would arise introspectively. Both instances would involve subtext, but the former is perhaps stronger because it occurs at the present moment. But that is something for you to decide in each particular instance.

SIMON: My dog…you know, I mean my little dog with the adorable face… Don’t you know what my dog looks like?

MELVYN: I got it. You’re talking about your dog. I thought that was the name of the colored man I’ve been seeing in the hall.

Again, because we know that Melvyn is the culprit, we experience the deception more acutely—every line promotes the Cover-Up, which demonstrates the sort of man he is. In other words, we learn far more about his character from the subtext than direct, denotative speech could reveal. Such is its power.


Masters of subtext – the sure sign of the accomplished writers. Study its various techniques until you master them fully.


Character dialogue – how to improve it right away

Character dialogue in Linda Seger’s How to Write Unforgettable characters.
Character dialogue: the art and craft of effective story-telling.

Learning how to write great dialogue includes learning how to listen to people engaged in conversations of all sorts, watching movies, reading novels, plays and screenplays noted for their excellent dialogue, and always reading newly-minted dialogue out loud. Speaking it is important because it helps you get a handle on the sounds and rhythms and flow of the speech.

Linda Seger refers to dialogue as the music of fiction writing. Dialogue should contain flowing melodic patterns, whether staccato or legato, which follow changing rhythms, much like music does. Writers have to develop an ear for this if they are to write dialogue that conveys the emotions, attitudes and values of individual characters.

“Character dialogue is indispensable to any story. Mastering its use will go a long way to making you an accomplished writer.”

In her book, Creating Unforgettable Characters, Seger suggest that in preparing to write dialogue you ought to ask the following questions:

1. Have you defined characters through their speech rhythms, vocabulary, accent, and the length of their sentences?

2. Does the dialogue contain conflict? Does it contrast the attitudes and values of the different characters?

3. Does the dialogue bristle with subtext? In other words, does the denotation of the words differ from the connotation—is there a deeper and often contrary meaning under the surface of the speech?

4. Does the dialogue reveal or hint at the ethnic and general background of the characters? Their level of education, age, and social background?

5. Is each character’s dialogue distinct? In other words, if the speech tags in the novel or screenplay suddenly disappeared, could you still recognise who was speaking?

Although there is much more to becoming a master of dialogue, these five suggestions will certainly help you improve the quality of your craft.


There are many approaches to improving your writing. Focusing on character and dialogue is one of them.

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Emotions, Attitudes and Values in Characters

Emotions, Attitudes and Values in 300
Emotions, Attitudes and Values in 300

There are many skills that go into writing authentic, colourful characters. Having a handle on their emotions, attitudes and values is certainly one of them.

Attitudes: In 300, Sparta’s fierce and unyielding defiance stems from its sense of independence and its belief in its fighting ability. It is personified through King Leonidas’ response to the gauntlet thrown at his feet by the Persian envoy who demands that earth and water be offered by King Leonidas as a token of submission to the God-King Xerxes. Sparta can then be allowed to continue as a puppet state, or face annihilation. Leonidas’ response is: ‘This is Sparta’. It succinctly encapsulates Sparta’s attitude of confidence and defiance. The result? Leonidas plunges the messenger to his death, which initiates the war with Xerxes.

Values: Values are the deep infrastructure residing within the character’s core. They form the foundation of the character’s moral and motivational hierarchy. Values spawn ideology, sustain belief, initiate action and mould behaviour.

“‘Imbuing your characters with emotions, attitudes and values will help grant them a sense of verisimilitude.”

Staying with our 300 example, we find Queen Gorco echoing the importance that Sparta places on courage and strength in service of the community, even when facing the insurmountable odds of the Persian army under the command of Xerxes. The Queen tells her husband who is leading 300 warriors to the Hot Gates to block the invaders to ‘come back with his shield or on it’—in other words, to die protecting his people, if needs be. Self-sacrifice in service of the wider good is seen as a paramount Spartan value.

Emotions: Before taking the final decision to kill the messenger and, in effect, declare war on Xerxes, Leonidas seems to hesitate, contemplating the hell that is to be unleashed on the people of his tiny kingdom. He turns to his wife as if to seek confirmation that he is doing the right thing. She offers him the slightest of nods—no need for words here. It is a touching moment, filled with subtle emotion as befitting a warrior nation, where the King of Sparta seeks and gets the approval of his queen before plunging Sparta into war.


Humans are complex. Instill emotions, attitudes and values in your characters to increase their verisimilitude and effectiveness.

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How to use theme to drive your story.

How Dead Poet’s Society renders theme.
How Dead Poet’s Society renders theme.

In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger reminds us that one of the many ways a writer expresses the theme of a story is through an either-or-statement. She provides several examples, but let’s look at one in particular nested in one of my most favourite films!

In Dead Poet’s Society the theme is conformity versus creativity. This clash is expressed through the characters battling over their beliefs. More importantly, exploring the theme through conflict lays bare the consequences of each belief system.

The principal of the school represents steadfast tradition, which is not wrong in itself, until it collides with the creative spirit and tries to crush it. Todd (Ethan Hawke), on the other hand, is transformed by the creative spirit at the end of the film. He has literally learnt to stand up for what he believes in. The unforgettable line, “Oh, Captain my Captain” is his stirring and rebellious affirmation of the open-minded creativity represented by Mr. Keating (Robin Williams). Ultimately, Mr. Keating’s plea to his students is to keep examining the world from different perspectives in order to flourish as people and artists.

“The theme of the story is what shapes its characters, actions and events. It is the story’s meaning.”

Opposing the value of creativity, Charlie (Gale Hansen) represents the sort of person who thinks creativity promotes chaos. He can’t admit that balance is perhaps the way to allow both sides to flourish. The result is reflected in Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) who tragically can’t sustain his creativity against the overwhelming weight of his father’s wish that he become a doctor. The result? He commits suicide in hopeless despair.

The film explores the theme of conformity versus creativity by encasing it inside separate characters whose views and choices result in specific outcomes. Perhaps the lesson here is that an accommodation ought to be sought between binary beliefs. Mr. Keating is an example of how to navigate these seemingly incompatible poles: He is a creative soul who does not reject the value of tradition out of hand, providing it does not become an obstacle to one’s hopes and dreams.


The theme of a story is the point of the tale and is embodied in the actions and character of the players that people it.

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The catalyst scene(s)

Solving of the math problem in Good Will Hunting is a fine catalyst.
Solving of the math problem in Good Will Hunting is a fine example of a catalyst scene.

Linda Seger describes the catalyst scene as one that sets the story in motion. Some refer to this scene as the inciting incident, but this may be a little confusing if not positioned early, as I shall explain below.

The first catalyst, or inciting incident as some may say, occurs within the first ten or fifteen minutes in a film. Seger gives us the following examples: The death of the gladiator’s wife in Gladiator, the quitting of the job in American Beauty, the solving of the math problem in Good Will Hunting or the shooting in Saving Private Ryan.

Seger makes the point that strong catalysts ought to emerge through actions and events rather than unfold through long verbal exchanges. Although a catalyst most commonly occurs in the first half of Act One they may occur throughout the script. For this reason I prefer not to refer to the catalyst as the inciting incident.

“A catalyst scene is a call to action.”

Seger provides further examples: Let’s say two people meet at the first turning point in Act One, and as a result fall in love. Or, say, in Act Two a detective uncovers an additional clue which leads him to change his approach to an investigation. Or, perhaps, at the midpoint a protagonist learns about a new drug which might cure her of her cancer. All these bits of information serve as catalysts which initiate subsequent actions that propel the story forward.


The catalyst scene is a spur to action initiating a series of cause-and-affect events in a story.

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The Character Triad

What is the Realisation-Decision-Action character triad and how does it help you write your characters?

The character triad is masterfully rendered in the Breaking Bad television series.

The triad focuses on character development, and while, dialogue and plot are important in helping to conjure up the magic in a story, it is convincing character action that keeps the tale moving. That’s where the realisation-decision-action triad comes in. It is a game-changer for creating memorable and believable characters. Here’s how it works.

At its core, the triad reveals how a character responds to a problem or event in a story. First, the character has a realisation – they identify the problem and gain insight on how to solve it. Then, they make a decision about how to act on that realisation. Finally, they take action.

“The character triad combines a realisation and a decision of how to solve a problem with the action itself, rendering the action authentic and convincing.

Let’s take a look at how this works in one of the greatest TV shows of all time – Breaking Bad. In episode 6 season 3 Walter learns that Hank is close to discovering Walter’s link to Jesse by locating the RV meth lab. Here’s how the triad plays out:

Realisation – Walter realises that Hank is on his trail and is about to uncover his identity.

Decision – Walter decides to have the RV destroyed before Hank can find it and connect it to him.

Action – Walter rushes to Clovis’s lot where the RV is located and decides to have it pulverized in a nearby junkyard.

But of course, it’s never that simple. Jesse learns/realises that Walter is about to destroy the RV and decides to try and prevent this. He rushes to the junkyard, leading Hank, who has been following him, straight to the RV and to Walter.

Unable to get away without being spotted, Walter and Jesse lock themselves inside the RV in a blind panic.

What happens next? You’ll have to watch the episode to find out!

So, there you have it – the realisation-decision-action character triad on a roll!


The function of the character triad is to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between the characters’ thoughts, decisions and actions.

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The Confrontation Scene

The confrontation scene in American Beauty.
The confrontation scene in American Beauty.

In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger explains that the confrontation scene is one which uncorks the pressure that has been building up in the story between characters.

It is typically about one character’ s anger or dissatisfaction directed at the wrongs, real or imagined, perpetrated by another against him or her. The time for hints and innuendos has passed. This scene allows a buried truth to be uncovered. Here the subtext finally explodes to the surface. In the words of Seger, this is the scene where a character ‘tells it like it is.’

In the film American Beauty Lester confronts the lies in his life. He desperately needs more from his job, his sexuality. And he needs something deeper from his wife who elevates her job and the couch above the meaningful things in life. Here is Lester’s confrontation with her about the gulf between them stemming from her shallowness and confused values.

LESTER: Carolyn, when did you become so joyless?…This isn’t life. It’s just stuff. And it’s become more important to you than living. Well, honey, that’s just nuts.

Lester’s words are not overly angry or numerous, but their import is devastating.

“The confrontation scene is where the subtext explodes to the surface.”

Sometimes the confrontation scene is anticipated, which builds tension. At other times it is unexpected although the reader or audience has sensed that it is coming.

In the film Tootsie, Michael confronts his agent for not informing him about an audition for a play. The agent suggests that Michael’s problems have made him essentially unemployable. The scene exposes Michael as being in need of therapy.


The confrontation scene is typically one where the subtext bursts to the surface, where one character confronts another about a wrong perpetrated against him, whether real or imagined.

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