Category Archives: Creating Anticipation in Dialogue

Five ways to make your novel a page-turner!

Repetition versus Repetitiveness in Stories

Repetition in dialogue or action in films and novels is tedious and redundant if it is experienced as repetitive.

Repetition in Unforgiven
In Unforgiven, William Manny’s reputation as a ruthless killer is enhanced through repetition.

In his book, Screenwriting, Richard Walters uses the film, Yentle, to illustrate this point. The film starts with a prologue informing us that in the Eastern Europe of the time, education was meant for men only. Moments later, a bookseller rides a cart through the streets advertising “scholarly books for men! Romantic novels for women!” 

When Yentle gets to town she peruses the bookseller’s books, studying a scholarly tome in particular. Upon seeing this, the bookseller snatches the book from her and reminds her that such books are meant for men only. She should seek out romantic books instead.

This sort of repetition is condescending, implying that we are incapable of getting the point the first time around. 

Repetition is acceptable, but only if it is not repetitive. This is not as contradictory as it sounds.

“Repetition of known information is acceptable only when used for emphasis.”

In Rashomon, four observers relate the same event. Here, however, each version differs in the detail, adding a unique and intriguing quality to the recounting. This is an exceptional use of a technique that examines the nature of human perception and truth.

Summary

In Unforgiven, we learn that the sheriff, Little Bill, is a tough antagonist to Clint Eastwood’s William Manny. To elevate the stature of the sheriff, the writer has a deputy emphasise his toughness by assuring the others that Little Bill is scared of no one, having survived a tough education in the mean streets of Kansas. This adds to Little Bill’s ruthless reputation, rather than being a mere repetition of information.

Repetition of information already provided to an audience or reader is condescending and unnecessary, except when it is specifically used for emphasis.

Exposition—how to write it

American Graffiti’s use of exposition is nothing short of masterful.
American Graffiti’s use of exposition is nothing short of masterful.


Exposition is a necessary part of any story. We must know certain facts about a character or event in order to make sense of the unfolding narrative. But an unskillful use of exposition can also slow the momentum of the story.

In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA gives several examples of good and bad exposition.

In Stand by Me, Richard Dreyfuss, a writer, relates past events in voice-over narration. This is a quick and cheap way to bring the viewer up to speed. But the scene is too static—boring.

In American Graffiti, a radio dial and catchy music immediately establish the time, place, and mood of the story. We learn through quick exchanges that Howard and Dreyfuss are planing to leave town in the morning. The setup occurs without lengthy diversions.

“In Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino brilliantly weaves exposition into the forward thrust of the story. A Nazi officer interrogates a French farmer who is hiding a Jewish family under the very floorboards where the interrogation is taking place.”

In Silver Bears, several old mafiosi in bathrobes march down a plush corridor situated high above Las Vegas. They enter an enormous therapy pool and disrobe. Sucking on cigars they step into the water and discuss things you’d expect to hear a gangster boardroom scene. By portraying the gangsters as fat old men in a pool, Tarantino allows the exposition to slip in surreptitiously. 

In these examples, context, mood, and necessary information are indeed relayed through exposition. The first does it in a laborious and obvious way. It slows the action down and taxes the viewer. The next three do so more skillfully. They insert subtext in the setting and dialogue to keep the audience engaged. 

Summary

Load exposition with subtext or make it part of the forward thrust of the story.

Invitation

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Deep Character Motivation in Stories

Character motivation in the film Speed
Deep Character motivation in Speed arises from a devastating physical threat

Much has been written on the importance of deep character motivation and development in stories, and rightly so. An engaging and convincing character is one of the most important elements in the well-crafted story.

It follows that what motivates character action is equally important. Readers and audiences need to know and understand precisely why it is that a character acts in the way that he or she does. Outer actions or events are convincing only if they are a fitting response flowing from the personality and circumstance.

Two Sides of Deep Character Motivation

In previous posts I’ve talked about the importance to a story of the inner and outer journeys of a character. If the outer journey describes the external movement of the tale (the “what”) the inner journey describes and explains the inner movement (the “why”).

Although the two seem ostensibly different, they are inexorably bound together. They entail each other. Another way to see motivation, then, is as having an inner and outer dimension.

Outer motivation operates at the level of the external goal. Here, a series of external events elicit actions from your characters. In the movie, Speed, for example, Officer Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) has to keep the bus moving at a certain speed to ensure that a bomb inside it doesn’t go off.

The reason why someone would risk one’s life to try and prevent this from happening, however, goes beyond external reasons—one’s job. It speaks to one’s moral makeup, compassion, and commitment to others, and perhaps to one’s need for excitement. It cuts to the core of Jack Traven’s character. 

Deep Character Motivation Quiz

In seeking to nail down your character’s motivation, it is helpful to ask yourself the following questions:

What is your character’s outer goal?
What is your character’s inner motivation (conscious or unconscious) for pursuing this goal?
What is your character willing to do/sacrifice to achieve this goal?
How does the goal change during the story, and how does this affect your character?
Is what is at stake for the character the highest it can be? (Higher stakes make for better stories).

Although these are by no means the only questions to be asked about character, they are a good way of sketching in the overall shape of the character arc. They also draw attention to the “what” (outer) and “why” (inner) aspects of your character’s actions—a requirement of any good story.

In Summary

Character Motivation is an essential part of effective storytelling. The outer goal is directly related to your character’s inner life and is motivated by its core concerns. 

Inspiration in Stories

Inspiration in Scarab 2
Inspiration came unexpectedly during the writing of Scarab 2

Inspiration.

In this post I deviate from my usual exploration of specific writing techniques to ruminate about that elusive creature, the muse.

At its core, inspiration is about the relationship between plotting and pantsing, about planning versus spontaneity, about the relationship between the left and right hemispheres of our brains.

I believe that thinking about the plot is necessary prior to our commencing the first draft, especially in a screenplay where precision born out of planning favours the budget. But I also maintain that magic often comes unexpectedly. 

Certainly, knowledge of voice, structure, character, dialogue, pace, and the like—essentially left brain activities—is necessary during the editing of the drafts that follow. But can theoretical knowledge of the craft take the place of spontaneity, serendipity, and the efficacy of the muse—activities stemming from the right side of our brain? 

I think not. Nor should it have to. I think the purpose of theoretical knowledge is to saturate both hemispheres so that practical knowledge (active skill) seamlessly and invisibly arises from the theoretical.

Inspiration is perhaps the clearest sign of the two hemispheres working together. Plotting and pantsing are not rival activities but co-conspirators in the craft of writing. 

In writing Scarab II: Reawakening, for example, I meticulously plotted the shape of the story, using my understanding of structure, before commencing the writing. Yet, perhaps the most interesting part of the novel, the expanded role of Dr. Kobus van Niekerk, the South African archeologist, occurred at the last moment, during the actual writing itself. This was unplanned and was as much of a surprise to me as I hope it is to the reader. This was a moment of inspiration that came from beyond conscious planning. 

My point is that large structural changes or additions stemming from some unexpected source can assail one at any time, and should be absorbed, if deemed fitting, during any stage of the writing process.

Summary

Inspiration often comes unexpectedly and might seem at odds with our original intention. Integrating it into our creative process, however, often makes for more original and inspired stories.

Hollywood Story Structure

Hollywood story structure
The Hollywood story structure promotes the commercial value of a story

A hollywood story: I’m a big fan of story structure, especially the structure of stories intended for a commercial audience, and nobody does commercial better (or worse – when it misfires) than Hollywood

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

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

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

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

The Hollywood Structure in a Nutshell

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

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

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

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

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

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

You get the idea. 

Hollywood story structure, then, lays out a set of events involving a sympathetic character facing an almost insurmountable problem in a way that conspires to keep the audience engrossed in the story.

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

Summary

Hollywood story structure refers to interconnected events about a sympathetic character facing problems that keep the audience engrossed in the story.

Winning Story from Winning Concept

Winning story - Forest Gump
Winning story – Forest Gump

Winning story

How do you come up with a winning concept that gives rise to a winning story? In other words, how do you take an idea and turn it into a concept that causes movie producers or book publishers to sit up and take notice?

Start with the Basic Idea. Let’s say you have an idea for a story that goes something like this:

A story about the dangers of DNA experimentation.

Or

A story about a psychopath who skins his victims alive.

Or

A story about a man who keeps ending up in extraordinary situations.

Put the ideas in a “What-if format”:

1. What if unregulated experimentation with the DNA structures goes wrong?

2. What if an ordinary man keeps ending up in extraordinary situations?

3. What if a psychopath, who skins his victims alive, keeps evading the police?

How modifiers make for winning stories

Modifiers are specific techniques used to trigger or inspire an improvement to the story idea. Listed below are some of the most important ones:

1. Take the idea to an extreme level.

2. Collide two opposites together.

3. Raise the stakes.

4. Make the environment unique.

5. Ensure you have the most appropriate main character.

6. Ensure you have special inter-character relationships.

7. Include a unique dilemma.

8. Ensure it has a powerful twist.

9. Change the sex, age, race, nationality, species.

10. Change the norm.

11. Ensure your plot includes a fascinating plan or strategy.

Here are three examples of modifiers used to create a winning story:

If we apply Modifier 1 to our first example, (what if unregulated experimentation with the DNA structures goes wrong), we might end up with a story about a theme-park full of prehistoric animals grown from the DNA acquired from the blood of mosquitos preserved in raisin—Jurassic Park.

Applying Modifier 2 to example 2 (what if an ordinary man keeps ending up in extraordinary situations), we could end up with a story about a simple-minded man who accidentally acquires wealth and becomes part of the most important political events of the 1960’s—Forrest Gump.

Applying Modifier 6 to example 3 (what if a psychopath, who skins his victims alive, keeps evading the police), might inspire us to come up with a story about a young female FBI agent who enlists the help of a brilliant cannibalistic psychiatrist who agrees to help her in exchange for playing mind-games with her—Silence of the Lambs.

As an exercise, try applying the remaining modifiers to some of your existing story ideas.

Summary

Taking an ordinary idea, putting it in a what-if format, and applying a modifier to it often strengthens the central concept and helps you write a winning story.

Perspective in Stories—how to choose it.


Perspective: The Cinderella Story
Perspective: The Cinderella Story

Do you write from the first person or third person perspective? Do you use an omniscient narrator or a flawed narrator who is a character in the story, like Nick Caraway in The Great Gatsby?

In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty, stresses that choosing your story’s perspective or viewpoint, is one of the first and most important decisions you make as storyteller. 

Your choice of perspective will not only affect the tone of your story, but the reader’s emotional response to it too.

A change of perspective can turn Jack and the Beanstalk into a tale about the home invasion of a sensitive, shy giant at the mercy of a rag-tag boy that has snuck into his home.

Additionally, a radical change of viewpoint can allow the writer to mine many existing and beloved stories, generating countless adaptations. The range and depth of digging into the treasure trove of past tales is almost limitless.

Just think: Cinderella, in a reimagined version, can become the sorry lot of an ugly sister, hopelessly outgunned and outshone by a shallow, foul-mouthed bimbo who can’t stop talking about her desire for fine clothes and the prince.

How about the changes in emotion that would occur in a story of adultery told through the adulterer’s eyes and then retold through the victim’s—as in The Postman Always Rings Twice? How would our sympathies shift through this approach?

Perspective favours the character who owns it, although it can also allow for characters who are filled with self-loathing or pity whom we tend to judge more critically. The point still stands: Choosing the right viewpoint is integral to the tone, theme, and the emotional commitment of your readers to your characters and story.

Summary

Choosing your story’s perspective is one of the first and most important decisions you make as a writer.

Taglines: Movie Posters and Book Covers

I recently had the privilege of delivering a series of lectures on how to create effective film loglines and taglines. Towards the end of the course I had the idea of warping things up by introducing a different approach to logline and tagline creation.

Taglines: The Level
Taglines: The Level

A logline, we are reminded, is the summation of the story, sans the ending, that introduces the main conflict, the protagonist and antagonist, and identifies that which must be learnt or acquired in order to fulfill the goal. 

Taglines, by contrast, are phrases or sentences that capture some essential aspect of the story—in Apollo 13, the tagline is: Huston, we have a problem.

The exercise I set my students during class, was to have them envisage the essence of a story, not through the written logline and tagline, as per usual, but by designing a poster or book cover instead.

I emphasised that it didn’t matter whether they were skilled artists or not. What was important was graphically to capture the spirit of the story. They could “paint” a word portrait and use stick and block drawings to fill in the gaps, if need be.

The exercise was a wonderful success and threw up many interesting renditions of the story. It also proved the point that the creative process works best when using a multidisciplinary approach.

In much the same way, the book cover of my novella, The Level, which is being developed into a feature film, captures an essential aspect of the story, and this, without giving too much away.

The book cover features an important object from the story in a dark but intriguing way, and encourages the reader to ask the question: What is the role of the electric chair in the tale?

The tagline, which also draws heavily from the title, might well be: Many Lives. Many Levels. Which Level Are You?

True to form, the cover was designed before the tagline was developed and helped inspire some of The Level’s many twists and turns.

Summary

Using an offbeat multidisciplinary approach in tackling creative techniques, such as writing taglines, promotes inspiration and encourages insight.

Lajos Egri on Story Characters

In his book, The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri points out that every object has three dimensions: Height, Width, Depth—Story Characters, however, have three extra dimensions.

Story characters in Logos Egri
Story characters in Lajos Egri

Egri begins with the most simple of the three: Physiology. To illustrate how physiology affects character, he provides examples of a sick man seeking health above all else, whereas a normal person may rarely give health any thought at all. He suggests that physiology affects a character’s decisions, emotions, and outlook.

The second dimension is Sociology. This deals with not only a character’s physical surroundings, but his or her interactions with society. He asks questions like: Who were your friends? Were your parents rich? Were they sick or well? Did you go to church? Egri constantly explores how sociological factors affected the character, and vice versa.

The most complex of the three is Psychology, and is the product of the other two.

In an industry obsessed with high concept and plot, it is important to restore the balance by placing equal focus on character. According to Lajos Egri, it is character, not plot, that ought to determine the direction of the story.

Egri provides categories for developing character. Collectively, he calls these categories the character’s bone structure. Filling out the specific details of each serves as a good start in creating a three dimensional character.

Lajos Egri and the Ingedients of Character

Physiology: Sex, height and weight, color of hair, eyes, skin, posture, appearance, heredity.

Sociology: Class, occupation, education, home life, religion, race, nationality, place in community: leader among friends, clubs, sports, political affiliations, amusements, hobbies: books, newspapers, magazines.

Psychology: Sex-life, moral standards, personal premise, ambition, frustrations, chief disappointments, temperament, attitude toward life, complexes, abilities.

Filling in these details about your characters will help you grant them true depth.

Summary

This post looks at three dimensions that Lagos Egri insists must be addressed in order to craft a well-rounded story character: physiology, psychology, and sociology.

Story characters in Logos Egri

How to Manage Narrative Perspective in Story-Telling

Narrative perspective in The Matrix

Narrative perspective in The Matrix

Effectively managing narrative perspective in story-telling is one of the most important and difficult skills to master.

By perspective I mean the hierarchy of vantage points the writer adopts in relating the story to her audience or readers.

There are three main levels of perspective: the author’s (she decides when, what and how much to reveal), the protagonist’s/characters’ (who act as if they have a life independent of the author’s), and the reader’s/audience’s (who interpret the story according to their own expectations).

Most commonly, perspective is intimately tied to the protagonist’s point of view.

In the absence of authorial or directorial declaration, what the protagonists sees and perceives to be truth is transmitted to the audience/reader as being true – until the revelation or point of schism.

In the film The Matrix, for example, the audience is initially as unaware that the depicted world is an illusion as is Neo.

The Point of Schism in Narrative Perspective

The plot thickens when our point of view separates from the protagonist’s. Before this moment, we share the protagonist’s confusion, bewilderment, and surprise as events unfold. Here, our association with the protagonist is one of subjectivity and identification. After the point of schism, we see beyond this limited vision – we perceive the dangers and are made privy to the traps planned for him by the antagonist.

I call this moment the point of schism – or a tear in perspective – and regard it as a narrative device whose importance is comparable to that of a turning point or mid-point. The insight afforded to us at this moment increases the suspense we feel for the protagonist, since we see danger approaching more clearly than he does. An example of this in The Matrix is the meeting between agent Smith, and Cypher who offers to lead Neo and the others into a trap in exchange for being re-inserted back inside the matrix as “someone important”.

Reversing the Schism

Sometimes, however, the schism works in reverse order: the protagonist knows the truth while the audience doesn’t — in The Hunt for Red October, the audience believes that the defecting Russian submarine has been sunk by the Russian fleet, when in fact, it is a trick played on the Russians (and the audience) by Captain Marko Ramius in order to slip through the Russian net and seek asylum in the United States.

Simultaneous Revelation

Occasionally, the story’s true perspective — the perspective of the author — is revealed to both the audience/reader and the protagonist simultaneously. Here, the author withholds crucial information from us and the protagonist till the revelation.

In the film The Sixth Sense, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist, who is shot in the stomach by a disturbed patient at the beginning of the film, ostensibly attempts to help his young patient Cole Sear with problems arising from his ability to see dead people. His relationship with his wife continues to deteriorate as Crowe spends more and more time in his basement alone, and continues to treat Cole.

The film, which is a master class in sleight-of-hand, reveals the biggest twist of all towards the end of the film when Crowe notices that his wedding ring in no longer on his finger but on his sleeping wife’s hand. We suddenly realize, along with Crowe, that it is he who has been dead all along as a result of having been shot in the stomach.

A Short Exercise

With reference to three films or novels you admire, answer the following questions:

Where is the point of schism in each?

Describe the type of schism.

What is the effect of the schism on the story and how could it have been done differently?

Summary

Choosing precisely when, where, and how to introduce a schism in narrative perspective, and what form it will take, requires an understanding of how it will change your story and what effect it will have on your readers and audience.