Category Archives: On Character

How to hide exposition.

Inglorious Basterds provides us with a great lesson in how to hide exposition.
Inglorious Basterds provides a great lesson in how to hide exposition.

Why hide exposition?

One of the most difficult things to do well in writing is to integrate exposition (essential information without which the reader/audience is lost), in a way that maintains the forward thrust of your story.

Halting the narrative to provide background about a character or event is sure to lose you momentum. Yet, supplying detailed information is often unavoidable. The usual way to establish back-story, reveal plot, and explain character motivation, is by way of dialogue, whether directly through declaration, or indirectly through hint, implication, and subtext. Sometimes, however, these techniques are either too delicate, or not delicate enough, to carry the full burden of information. Dramatizing exposition by tying it to a structurally important event such as an inciting incident, turning point, or a character reveal, is one way of ensuring that forward momentum is maintained.

“Always try to hide exposition.”

In Inglorious Basterds, a film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, Colonel Hans Landa’s (Christoph Waltz) reputation of ruthlessness and Machiavellian intelligence is essential in building him up as a fearsome Nazi antagonist. The inciting incident occurs when Colonel Landa arrives at a dairy farm in the French countryside in search of the Dreyfuses, a missing Jewish family, who he suspects is being sheltered in the area. Landa quizzes the dairy farmer, monsieur LaPadite (Denis Menochet) about the possible whereabouts of the Dreyfuses, claiming this to be the last step before he closes the book on their case. While the interrogation provides an ideal opportunity for exposition, Tarantino’s handling of it is nothing short of masterful. In having Colonel Landa ask that LaPadite sketch-in the Colonel’s own background, Tarantino infuses the scene with additional tension, irony, and ramps up the stakes — all without interrupting the forward thrust of the story:

Landa: Now, are you aware of the job I’ve been ordered to carry out?
LaPadite: Yes.
Landa: Please tell me what you’ve heard.
LaPadite: I’ve heard that the Fuhrer has put you in charge of rounding up Jews left in
France who are either hiding, or passing as Gentile.
Landa: I couldn’t have put it better myself. Are you aware of the nickname the people of France have given me?
LaPadite: I have no interest in such things.
Landa: But you are aware of what they call me?
LaPadite: I am aware.
Landa: What are you aware of?
LaPadite: That they call you, “The Jew Hunter”.
Landa: Precisely. I understand your trepidation in repeating it (…). Now I on the
other hand, love my unofficial title, precisely because I’ve earned it.

Landa’s dialogue reveals that he is a cunning interrogator, entrusted by the Fuhrer to ferret out Jewish families hiding in France. His pride in his job is obvious. This is a man who enjoys manipulating, hunting, and killing — an antagonist whose back-story makes him a worthy opponent for any protagonist. In designing the exposition in this manner, Tarantino accomplishes several things: 

1. He transforms the mere flow of background information into dramatic irony by forcing LaPadite, who is afraid for his family, to talk about the feared and hated Landa in neutral terms.
2. It provides important information about Landa’s job in France, and the reason for his being in LaPadite’s house.
3. He establishes Landa’s reputation as the Fuhrer’s feared henchman.
4. Finally, it allows him to illustrate Landa’s vanity in his own reputation, deepening and colouring the Colonel’s character.

Summary

Hide exposition through the veil of emotion. Crafted well, exposition deepens character, contextualises plot, and moves the story forward.

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A character profile – making characters more compelling.

In Macbeth, the protagonist has a compelling character profile. He is  brave and courageous man but with one damning flaw — overriding ambition.
In Macbeth, the protagonist has a compelling character profile. He is brave and courageous man but with one damning flaw — overriding ambition.

A character profile helps you write compelling characters—the mainstay of any story.

Learning to write fictional characters is a life-long endeavour; it draws on our personal growth as we journey through life, learning from our actions, both good and bad. 

There are, however, specific techniques that we, as writers, may immediately use to improve our craft. One such technique is to deploy a character profile prior to commencing the writing of your character(s).

In this post we examine six such elements: Basic traits, want vs. need, opposing elements, secrets, flaws, and uniqueness.

The character profile check-list:

1. Basic Traits

Fictional characters usually have three or four basic traits that help shape their actions. In the movie, Rocky, for example, the protagonist is a hardworking journeyman boxer whose toughness and relentless determination to take whatever the opponent can throw at him help to propel him to a world heavyweight championship fight.

2. Want vs. Need

What a character wants is not always what he or she needs. In fact, some of the most compelling characters are forged out of this opposition. A want is usually manifested through the pursuit of an outer goal, while a need is often obfuscated by that very goal. Rocky ostensibly wants to go the distance with the heavyweight champion of the world. What he needs, however, is to bolster his self-respect by enduring the punishment the champion throws at him.

3. Opposing Elements

Inner conflict arising out of warring elements makes for more interesting characters. In Unforgiven, William Munny a cold blooded killer in his youth is reformed by his loving wife, now dead, who continues to influence him beyond the grave. In accepting a job to kill the men who cut up the face of a prostitute, Munny repeatedly asserts that his wife has cured him of his evil ways, and he has only agreed to take on the job in an attempt to dispense justice and provide a fresh start for his children from the reward money.

4. Keeping Secrets

Someone with a secret makes for a far more compelling character. Secrets promote suspense, surprise, and enrich the backstory, allowing the writer to craft situations that are inherently more engaging and resonant. In the film, Chinatown, Evelyn Mulwray ‘s dialogue and actions resonate with a terrible secret—that her daughter is also her sister, a result of an act of incest perpetrated by her own father. It is only when Jake Gittes learns of this towards the end of the film that he is able to fully understand the reason for her odd and seemingly deceitful behavior.

“A character profile pin-points the elements that will create the depth, complexity, and verisimilitude in that character.”

5. The Flaw

A character with a flaw seems more human, allowing the writer to play his strengths off against his weaknesses, heightening the inner and outer conflict. In the Shakespearean play, Macbeth, the protagonist is a brave and courageous man who has one damning flaw — overriding ambition. This makes him susceptible to the suggestions of others, especially his wife, that he should be king. This flaw drives the story and ultimately determines Macbeth’s fate — his death.

6. Uniqueness

A unique personality doesn’t have to be bizarre; one or two unique habits or unusual traits are often enough to make a character stand out from the pack. In the novel, The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is a wealthy, mysterious man who throws outlandish parties in the hope of attracting Daisy — the great love of his life — to one of them. The unique trait that distinguishes him from everyone else of his ilk is his gift for wonder, his capacity to stay true to his beloved vision of Daisy.

Summary

A character profile helps us write compelling characters. It helps ensure the action and dialogue stay on track.

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Dialogue continuity – how to achieve it.

Dialogue continuity in Independence Day.
Dialogue continuity in Independence Day.

Dialogue is such an important part of successful storytelling that it has generated countless of books and courses in how to achieve it.

Today I want to touch upon one aspect of good dialogue – what Dwight V. Swain calls dialogue continuity in his book, Film Scriptwriting – A Practical Manual.

Swain suggests that one of the markers of good dialogue is continuity. That is, each speech, be it short or long, acknowledges the one preceding it in some direct or indirect way. 

There are several ways to achieve this. Below are two of the most common – repetition of a word or phrase, and a question / answer structure:

In Independence Day the President of the United States questions an alien who is speaking through a surrogate:

President: Can there be a peace between us?
Alien: Peace? No peace.
President: What is it you want us to do?
Alien: Die. Die.

Here, the clipped berevity embedded in the question and answer format, and the repetition of the word ”peace” and ”die” ties each line to the one preceding it with no possibility of drift.

“The techniques of question & answer, and repetition, are effective ways to create dialogue continuity in your novels and screenplays.”

In Unforgiven, William Munny, a hired killer, is told that his old friend, Ned Logan, whom he talked into joining him for a contract job to take revenge on some cowboys for the beating and scarring of a prostitute, has been killed by the Sheriff, Little Bill, and his men. This, despite the fact that Ned had withdrawn from the contract earlier without having harmed anyone. The news is a major turning point in the story:

Prostitute: Ned? He’s dead.
Munny: What do you mean he’s dead? He went south yesterday, he ain’t dead.
Prostitute: They killed him. I thought you knew that.
Munny: Nobody killed Ned. He didn’t kill anyone. He went south yesterday. Why would anybody kill Ned? Who killed him?

There are other ways to turbo-charge dialogue – pregnant pauses, misdirection, change of subject, subtext, but in all cases the important thing to remember is that each piece of effective dialogue should, at the very least, hook tightly into the next. Question / answer and repetition of specific words are two of the most common ways to achieve this.

Summary

The techniques of question/answer and repetition are effective ways to create dialogue continuity in your novels and screenplays.

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How accomplished writers use emotion draw us into their stories.

Robert Frost recognised the power of emotions in his poems.
Robert Frost unleashed the power of emotion in his poems.

Robert Frost, highlighting the importance of emotion, famously wrote: “No tears in the writer no tears in the reader.”

Although he was referencing a specific emotion, it applies to a range of emotions solicited by great writing – compassion, awe, elation, fear, anxiety, jealousy, and the like. 

Stories that evoke a range of emotions, emotions that are tested against the writer’s own experience, bind the reader to the characters of a story by soliciting identification, sympathy, and empathy in the reader. 

Accomplished writers understand that such novels and screenplays are difficult to put down. The reader is compelled to keep turning the pages in order to discover how those emotions play out.

“Emotion can make or break your story, if poorly rendered.”

Emotions cross the boundaries of age, gender, race, and even species. Consider the following passage, taken from Margaret Geraghty’s The Novelist’s Guide, in which a character, Violet, tries to come to terms with the death of her beloved dog, Carey. Instead of the writer describing Violet’s feelings of sadness directly, she lets us experience these emotions vicariously through the technique of show-don’t-tell:

“When the vet had gone, Violet knelt down on the worn rug beside Carey’s basket. His was still, his mouth slightly open, one ear bent over like a rose petal, revealing the pink skin inside. He smelt a little. Nothing bad, just the way you’d expect an old dog to smell. […] 

In the end, she […] went to run a bath. Cleanliness was next to Godliness. She’d always believed that. When the bath was full, she went back to Carey, gathered him in her arms, and gently, carefully lowered the stiff little body into the warm water. It was, she reflected, the first time that he hadn’t struggled.”

That last line in particular is a genuine tear-jerker, compacting all the years of love for her dog in one distinguishing moment. 

Significantly, there is no abstract description of Violet’s sadness, her sense of loss. What we have instead is a concrete and specific scene that conveys immediacy by granting us access to Violet’s direct experience. Our hearts and minds jump back to a time when we, perhaps, had lost a beloved pet, helping to make Violet’s loss our loss. 

This technique lies at the heart of creating deep and genuine emotion in the reader and is one of the secrets in welding the reader to the characters in our stories.

Summary

Use emotion to bind readers and audiences to the characters in your stories.

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What goes into memorable one-liners?

Forrest Gump is full of memorable one-liners.
Forrest Gump is full of memorable one-liners.

STORY consultant Linda Seger reminds us that memorable, dialogue, including memorable one-liners, is an indispensable part of any enduring story.

Memorable dialogue has rhythm, context and veracity. It conveys character through subtext and promotes plot through subtlety, ingenuity and compression. 

Sometimes a line of dialogue rises to the status of theme and serves to sum up the premise of the story. At its best, it becomes a meme, an item in our menu of commonly used expressions.

In my classes on storytelling, I urge my students to come up with several supercharged lines in their story that not only capture some important aspect of a character, but that also sum up or, at least, highlight important features of the tale. 

“Memorable one-liners become memes, spreading throughout society and immortalising their source narratives.”

Such snippets of dialogue increase their power through repetition, not only within the story itself, (the line is repeated by the same or other characters), but also extradigetically, through the viewers and readers who quote it in their everyday lives.

Who can forget these immortal lines? 

1. “Go ahead, make my day.”
2. “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”
3. “Life is like a box of chocolates.
4. “I’ll be back.”
5. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
6. “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”
7. “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse.”

Memorable lines of dialogue echo, sing, resonate, surprise and excite. Like great music, they keeps replaying itself over and over in our minds. 

How many of the lines mentioned above can you place? Check below for the answers.

Summary

Memorable dialogue, including memorable one-liners, performs many functions in a story. At its best, it becomes a meme that spreads throughout society, immortalising its source.

1. Dirty Harry
2. The Wizard of Oz
3. Forrest Gump
4. Terminator
5. Apocalypse Now
6. Who Killed Roger Rabbit
7. The Godfather

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What constitutes great writing?

William Golding’s works are the embodiment of great writing.
William Golding’s works are the embodiment of great writing. A school teacher and novelists, Golding’s used his knowledge of school children in his debut novel, Lord of the Files.

Great writing embodies at least two distinct sets of skills. The first arises from the writer’s own life: empathy, intuition, observation, inquisitiveness, a moral compass, and the like. Some are acquired over time, simply by living one’s life; others are innate and spring from the writer’s general and emotional intelligence.

The second set has to be acquired through hard work. It has to do with knowledge about the craft, such as how to fashion the theme of a story, how to make characters engaging, how to weave plot and subplot together so that they compliment each other, is easier to acquire.

Much of the writerly advice offered in books, blogs, and courses emphasises this second set. Mention is made of the importance of the first, a writer’s powers of observation, or the need to be inquisitive, but the emphasis is on how to work with technique.

The reason is simple: It is far easier to teach someone how to deploy a turning point to spin the story around than it is to align that turning point with some astute observation about the human condition.

I often advise fledgling writers to pay equal attention to both sets of requirements; to try and integrate them into their writing process from the start.

“Great writing, given the presence of talent, stems from a continuous process of learning—learning from one’s own experiences and learning through study.”

The information needed to produce great writing is all around us—in streets, shops, restaurants—if only we can learn to observe, relate, and recognise its relevance in our work.

I was once fortunate enough to be teaching at a college in Australia, which was situated a few hundred meters from the art gallery at Brisbane’s South Bank. I would often spend my lunch hour there browsing through its many treasures.

I remember on one occasion being captivated by a painting of a young woman in a floral dress. She was leaning against a tree and seemed rather forlorn.

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that someone else was studying the painting intently. A glance revealed that this person, an elderly man with deeply wrinkled skin, was working his top lip with his teeth. Another glance revealed his moist eyes.

I crept away so as not to intrude, but my imagination raced with narrative possibilities. Did she remind him of his own daughter that had, perhaps, passed away? Or, had the young woman once been a lover who had perhaps rejected him?

I tucked the image away in my mind to use in some future story, perhaps as a minor beat, perhaps as an inciting incident or a turning point.

The point is that one’s readiness to absorb experiences, to remember the small details that breathe life into memory, and to allow for the narrative possibilities to take hold of the imagination, is a wonderful way to broaden one’s skills in life and in writing.

Summary

Great writing requires the integration of two distinct sets of skills. The one stems from living and learning from life, the other from mastering the techniques that transform life into stories.

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Plot or Character?

Plot or character? Both are essential in to the success of Gladiator.
Plot or character? Both are essential to the success of Gladiator.

Fledgling writers often ask: what drives a story, plot or character?

Some argue that genre is the lens that focuses the writer’s attention on one or the other. A whodunit, they suggest, is more plot-driven than say European art film that concentrates more on character. 

But need this be absolutely the case? Would concentrating on both not serve to enrich any story, regardless of its genre? Especially because both are so deeply interwoven, that you can’t invoke one without invoking the other.

The following analogy is helpful: Character is to plot as a prism is to a beam of light passing through it. The plot is refracted by character.

“Plot or character? That’s the wrong question. Both serve the narrative. Both are tools writers ought to use in equal measure to tell a story.”

Slap a Nazi officer on the cheek and you’re likely to get shot. Slap one of the twelve disciples instead, and he may well offer you the other cheek. Both reactions, which might be pivotal turns in the story, are influenced by the personality, beliefs, and ideology of the characters involved.

In the film Gladiator, for example, can you imagine Maximus failing to fight back against the Emperor who has poisoned him, then stabbed him with his sword in one-to-one combat in the arena? 

Much more fitting is that Maximus use the Emperor’s sword, dripping with his own blood, and use it to stab the Emperor to death with it. 

This action is only possible because of who Maximus is, a man of immense will and strength who is determined to revenge the death of his family and save Rome from being ruled by a madman. His action is in keeping with his character.

And so it should be with any character whatever the magnitude of his actions, since, in terms of narrative construction, actions are nothing more than responses to challenges and opportunities presented to the characters of a story.

Summary

The plot of a story shines through the prism of character.

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A matter of Style

A matter of style - Hemingway va Faulkner
A matter of style – Faulkner and Hemingway could not be more different in style, yet both are literary geniuses who mastered their craft.

ONE of the first things we notice about writers is their style – the way they arrange words on paper or the screen, the way they choose specific words over a myriad of others. 

In the slim volume, Elements of Style, Strunk and White point out that style reveals not only the spirit of the writer but very often his or her identity too. Style contributes to the writer’s ‘voice’ – his attitude towards his characters, the world and its ideology.

To illustrate, here are two passages by two great writers on the subject of languor. The first is quintessential Faulkner:

“He did not still feel weak, he was merely luxuriating in the supremely gutful lassitude of convalescence in which time, hurry, doing, did not exist, the accumulating seconds and minutes and hours to which in its well state the body is slave both waking and sleeping, now reversed and time now the lip-server and mendicant to the body’s pleasure instead of the body thrall to time’s headlong course.” 

“Style is the fingerprint of the creator. We recognise the writer by its palpable presence.”

Now Hemingway:

“Manuel drank his brandy. He felt sleepy himself. It was too hot to go into the town. Besides there was nothing to do. He wanted to see Zurich. He would go to sleep while he waited.”

The difference in style is striking, yet both passages are equally effective. The first is loquacious, almost verbose. It underpins the subject matter through its slowness, its inactivity.

The second is brief, laconic, yet its very brevity communicates Manuel’s languor through the truncated, sluggish drift of his thoughts.

Two very contrasting styles! Two powerful pieces of writing.

But how do the new writers set about developing their own style? 

Discovering what sort of writing appeals to you is a first step. Giving yourself time to find and develop your individual voice through trail and error is the second. The journey is long and hard, as the saying goes, but the rewards are worthwhile – because at the end of it you you will create work that is memorable and unique.

Summary

Find your writing style by identifying and immersing yourself in stories you admire, then work to develop your own voice through trail and error. And never, ever give up.

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Significant action or dialogue?

The film delivers the story more through small but significant action than dialogue
The film delivers the story more through small but significant action than dialogue.

DIALOGUE, like significant action, is a crucial part of the writer’s toolkit. It promotes the plot, and, at its best, draws us into the inner life of the characters.

Sometimes, however, scenes are better served through action alone.

Who can forget the laconic Spaghetti Westerns featuring Clint Eastward as the cigar chewing, dead calm, gunslinger whose draw is faster than lightning? As he faces man after man, daring each to draw, the tension is conveyed through the biting down on cigars, through unflinching gazes, and through twitching fingers hovering above holstered guns. No need for dialogue here.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey the pervasive feeling of awe at the trajectory of intelligence from ape to spacefaring humanity is conveyed through the silent appearance of the featureless Monolith. Its presence at key moments of evolutionary history creates a depth and gravitas in the minds of the audience that is ineffable.

“Deciding whether to favour dialogue or significant action in a story is, more often than not, a stylistic choice.”

Some of the most seemingly innocuous, yet telling moments that reveal character, come from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver where Travis’ (Robert De Niro) silent, sardonic smile, suggests that he is disconnected from the world better than any words can.

When a pimp, played by Harvey Keitel, tries to have a locker-room conversation with him regarding the hiring of one of his girls (Jody Foster), Travis can only stare silently at him, refusing to participate in the verbal banter.

Some stories, of course, are predisposed to character action without dialogue. In war or action films the power mostly comes from the relentless movement of men and equipment, where the only sounds are those of exploding shells, small arms fire, or thundering car and truck engines – Saving Private Ryan, the Mad Max films, Apocalypse Now, Fast and Furious, and countless of others.

Sometimes words seem to mock their very presence in a scene, becoming placeholders for that which cannot be expressed – mysterious, indecipherable, perhaps even an obstacle to meaning itself.

Remember the confusion arising out of Jack Nicholson’s indecipherable utterance in the last moments of Chinatown as he walks away from the crime scene, prompting the lieutenant to ask him repeatedly what he said? Neither the lieutenant nor the audience ever get to hear the answer to that.

Summary

The absence of dialogue often adds power to scenes by shifting the focus on significant action.

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Have your audiences and readers feel emotion

If we don’t feel emotion for our characters then we won’t care about their stories. And if we don’t care about their stories we won’t care about the ideas they espouse.

This is simple to understand but difficult to achieve.

Simple, because if we come to feel for the characters in a story we will come to care about their fate, and the overarching meaning of the tale. Difficult, because it takes great skill to find the right words to pull this off.

“Emotion shines a light on ignorance and prejudice. It helps uncover the truth hiding behind character action.”

Primarily interested in communicating lofty, existential, philosophical concepts about the nature of reality and the human condition? Then write an article for a philosophy or psychology journal. Don’t focus solely on turning your characters into vehicles for conveying ideas. If you do, you will lessen their impact on readers and audiences.

Emotion that supports profound insight, however, makes a story unforgettable. Consider the following passages:

“Leaning against my father, the sadness finally broke open inside me, hollowing out my heart and leaving me bleeding. My feet felt rooted in the dirt. There were more than two bodies buried here. Pieces of me that I didn’t even know were under the ground. Pieces of dad, too.” ― Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impossible Knife of Memory.

”For a moment the world seems balanced on the edge of love and hate—but only for a moment, for how can I ever forget the timeless chats under the stars sitting on my father’s knee, the rocket ships rendered out of wood and paint punching through the golden light of endless afternoons, the stories read to me with such care and patience by my mother whose warm breath I’d feel against my cheek?” —Stavros Halvatzis, The Nostalgia of Time Travel.

“Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.” ― Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray.

“Sometimes pain is so unmanageable that the idea of spending another day with it seems impossible. Other times pain acts as a compass to help you through the messier tunnels of growing up. But pain can only help you find happiness if you remember it.”
― Adam Silvera, More Happy Than Not.

Moving, insightful, stuff and a reminder to writers that insight and emotion go hand in hand.

Summary

If your readers and audiences feel emotion in the stories you write, they will care about the characters and ideas you espouse.

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