Success as a Writer

Juno was an unexpected success.
Juno was an unexpected success.

How do you measure success as a writer? Writers like to speculate about what it takes to write a smash hit. We pour over the year’s best-sellers, read manuals and books on the subject, take classes, cruise websites such as this one, searching for an edge.

But while that’s all to the good, Ray Charles said it best: “Ain’t no son of a bitch knows what’s gonna hit.”

That’s the plain truth.

When a publisher or a movie producer says, “Give me something like The Hunger Games, it’s what young audiences want,” what she means is: “I believe that’s what young audiences want.” She can’t know for sure.

There are many reasons why a specific story proves popular. Remove or misplace one element and you could end up with a dud.

Hugh Howey’s Wool seemed like just another post-apocalyptic story — people kept in the dark about the real situation beyond the confines of their silos. But something about the visceral way the story starts, the way we are drawn into the mind of the lead character caught the readers’ imagination. Wool shot to #1 in its category on Amazon, and Hugh Howey became the indie writer’s poster child.

“No one knows for sure what’s going to prove popular this month, this year. The landscape is littered with failed imitations of yesterday’s hits. Success is all too often elusive.”

Juno seemed like a non-starter. Ostensibly about a teenage girl who gets pregnant, the story seemed destined to wallow at the bottom of the slash pile. Yet, the integrity, freshness, and passion behind the writing drove the movie to an Oscar for best original screenplay.

So, amid all the seemingly contradictory advise, what’s a writer to do? Emulate the formula and risk being yesterday’s news? Write something so original he has to wait ten years for audiences to catch up?

Here’s John Truby on the subject: “Write a screenplay [or story] that will change your life. If you don’t sell it, at least you will have changed your life.”

If your story is something you care deeply about, others will too. But even if they don’t, you will, at least, have explored a subject close to your heart. It’s far better than grinding your teeth and writing something you think readers want, only to discover they don’t.

Summary

Maximise the chances of success while insulating yourself against failure by writing stories that you feel passionate and excited about.

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Title, Title, Title.

The title of the film says it all - Apollo 13 poster.
The title of the film says it all.

In today’s competitive market an indie writer needs to keep her eye on at least two targets – writing skills and marketing, and it all starts with the title.

The belief that all a good writer has to do is keep writing—that recognition will come knocking on his door in due course, is optimistic. For every writer that succeeds many others don’t. The truth is that wide-spread recognition, if it comes at all, has to be actively pursued, coaxed, grown.

Entering competitions, doing readings of your work, building a large online presence, giving guest lectures at book clubs and colleges, can help—but start by grabbing your potential reader’s attention through a great title followed by a captivating logline or blurb.

I have discussed loglines and blurbs elsewhere on my blog. Today I want to look at the importance of a story’s title.

“Not only does a title hint at what your story is about, it is an indispensable marketing tool, too.”

I asked a friend of mine, an avid reviewer of kindle books, how she picks which story to read first amongst the many others she receives each day. She told me she lets the title and book cover do that for her.

When I worked for Elmo de Witt Films, one of my tasks was to look out for promising screenplays. There were always dozens of them in a pile on my desk waiting to be read. The ones that caught my eye first were always screenplays with great titles.

The story title as a marketing tool

A great title ticks one or more of the following boxes:

It points to a genre.
It hints at the story behind it.
It has emotional content.
It is not the name of a character.
It sets up a question, hints at a puzzle, intrigues one in some way.

Titles such as, Apollo 13, Rich and FamousGladiatorThe Madness of King George, and Alien leave us in no doubt as to what the story is about. Others, such as Blade Runner, sound so cool and compelling they make us want to know more.

But titles such as K-PaxThe Island, August Rush?

Not so good.

The title, Emma, may have worked for Jane Austen over two hundred yeas ago, but names of (unknown) people don’t generally make for good titles.

I typically come up with ten or more titles for a new book or screenplay and ask family, friends, and students to pick their favourite from the list, before making my final choice. I consider it time well spent.

Summary

Choosing a compelling, eye-catching title for your story is the first small step in getting your novel or screenplay noticed.

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Reveal – ing your Reveals

The reveal is handled differently from the book in the film Notes on a Scandal

How and when do you reveal that big secret in your story? All at once? Through smaller increments and surprises?

In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers stresses the importance of placing the reveals at the right place. He uses an example provided by UCLA’s screenwriting programme head, William Froug, about an old man feeding pigeons from a park bench. Should the old man dump the whole bag of crumbs on the grass right away, or scatter a few at a time to keep the pigeons interested longer?

“Placing a big reveal later on in the story, and hinting at it by sprinkling breadcrumbs earlier, is the better option.”

The book upon which the film Notes From a Scandal is based starts with a big scene in which it is revealed that the Cate Blanchett character has had an affair with one of her students. The book handles this information as the inciting incident. It’s a heck of a start to the story, but it does give away the biggest secret right away. The film version handles this differently, revealing the news a little later. It keeps the audience on a string and loads up the reveal with more punch. 

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, screenwriter, William Goldman, saves the small surprise that Butch is from New Jersey until the movie is well under way. He later offers an even bigger reveal when the men are about to hit the payroll guards in Bolivia. During the face-off with a bunch of rough-looking bandits, Butch tells Sundance that he’s never shot anyone before. It’s not a good time to let your partner-in-crime know about your lack of experience, but it is a hugely impactful moment for the audience. 

Imagine, if you will, if Goldman had started the story by having Butch introduce himself to Sundance with, ”Hi there. My name’s Robert Leroy Parker. I’m really from New Jersey. I’ve never shot anyone in my life before!” 

That would be pretty lame, right? Luckily, the screenwriter knew better!

Summary

Withholding crucial information for as long as possible, and releasing it as a well-structured reveal at a dramatically heightened moment, makes for keener audience interest and improves the quality of your story.

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Complete Story ~ essential ingredients

Complete story:Tom Cruise in The Edge of Tomorrow
In Edge of Tomorrow the complete story arises as a result of the A and B lines coming together at the climax.

In his book, Save the Cat, Blake Snyder offers us this piece of invaluable advice on writing a complete story: “Keep in mind the only reason for storytelling, and why the A and B stories must cross throughout: It’s to show the true reason for the journey is not getting the tangible goal, but learning the spiritual lesson that can only be found through the B Story!”

This is what the tale is really about: learning the spiritual or moral lesson that allows the hero to overcome the obstacles that life and the antagonist throw his way.

Let’s backtrack a bit.

At the inciting incident, the hero is given a wake-up call. A bump disturbs his trajectory through the ordinary world. His first response is usually an incorrect one. In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise is told he is to go to the warfront to film the allied invasion. His response is to try and blackmail the General in order to force him to reverse his decision. Not a good call.

“In a complete story the A and B narrative strands criss-cross each other at crucial moments.”

The first turning point represents the true start of the story. It also sets the outer goal. Tom Cruise is killed, but gets covered by the blue blood of the Alpha Mimic, which causes him to return to relive the day. His response upon finding himself back at square one, however, is to try and talk the Master Sergeant into letting him call his superiors. Lesson still not learnt.

By the midpoint, Cruise finally realises why he keeps returning to the same event, over and over again. He has to team up with the Angel of Verdun and defeat the Mimics by killing their leader, the Omega. Our reluctant protagonist has gone from unwilling participant to motivated Hero. Here, the outer and inner stories fuse to produce a single and clear purpose—a plan to save the world from the invading Mimics—even if it means sacrificing oneself to do it.

By the second and final turning point, his recurring efforts are in danger of stalling—a blood transfusion will rob him of his ability to relive the day, just as it did the Angel of Verdun’s. And while he is at first reluctant to sacrifice her to this permanent-death scenario, he realises that he has no choice but to risk it if he is to have any hope of defeating the Mimics. This represents a step up in growth and is a perfect illustration of the A and B stories supporting each other.

The inciting incident, the first turning point, the midpoint, and the second turning point, then, present the writer with the perfect opportunity of fusing the Hero’s transformational arc to his pursuit of the outer goal.

Summary

The B Story underpins the A story. It is the transformational arc the hero undergoes in order to acquire the true goal.

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Creative Writing — Art and Craft

Stavros Halvatzis on Creative writing
On creative writing.

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

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

Here’s my take.

The First Layer: Spirit, Ethos

I like to separate the craft into three areas. The first concerns learning about the spirit or ethos of the times, and our view of it.

It concerns sharpening our powers of observation, being aware of contemporary ideas, ideals, and issues, bringing compassion to our social critiques, and learning to address old themes in new ways while acknowledging the value of the old in the new.

These insights stem from our level of maturity. They can not be hurried.

The Second Layer: Story Structure

The second area concerns the structure of stories.

“A study of creative writing that lacks awareness of the layers that make up the craft is like a rudderless ship loaded with treasure but destined to meander endlessly at sea.”

Does your tale have a beginning, middle, and end? Are the turning points, pinches, midpoint, climax, resolution, and so on, crafted in a way that encourages interest, suspense, and surprise? If not your story may lack a specific direction.

The Third Layer: Words and Sentences

The third layer has to do with mastering the craft at the micro level. Are we using vocabulary and figures of speech appropriate to our subject? Are we creating powerful textures, pictures and sounds with our words—using all five senses to do so?

Words with an Anglo-Saxon origin, for example, are grittier and more tactile, depending on the context, than their Latin counterparts—so, ‘gut’ instead of ‘stomach’, and so on. Are we using short snappy sentences or long and mellifluous ones? All of this affects how the reader experiences our story.

In my opinion, these three layers make up the craft of writing. Together they give rise to the individual ‘voice’ of the writer. Incorporating this approach when writing a new novel or screenplay increases its chances of success.

Summary

Excellence in creative writing involves mastering the three layers rooted in the micro and macro levels of the craft. Together they give rise to the ‘voice’ of the author. 

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New Story Ideas — how to find them

Jurassic world is a new story idea from a great concept
Jurassic World is the latest blockbuster stemming from what was a new story idea rooted in genetic cloning.

New Story Techniques

How does one generate new and exciting ideas for one’s stories? Here are some suggestions:

  • Use personal experience to spark new and authentic story ideas. Personal experience helps to add verisimilitude and uniqueness to any piece of creative writing because it is based on first-hand knowledge of real-life situations.
  • Keep a file of blog, newspaper and magazine articles and stories; also, short notes on television documentaries and programs that have caught your eye. Use them to kick-start your thinking on a related subject.
  • Use a notebook or digital device to document interesting bits of conversation, behaviour, dreams, personal encounters.
  • Explore new ideas by brainstorming a subject with friends. Free-associate root aspects of that subject by introducing nouns and verbs not usually associated with it. Note the new relationships that emerge. Those may spark new ways of looking at old ideas.
  • Ask that powerful idea-generating question: ’What if…’. Combine it with an unexpected or opposing idea. If, for example, your subject is about genetic cloning, you could start by asking: What if the DNA of prehistoric animals was found trapped in millions-of-years-old resin and used to bring Jurassic era animals back to life?

“New story ideas are all around us. We just have to know how to spot them.”

  • Mind-map a subject or idea by writing down its core meaning in the middle of a blank page or screen. Create a series of related ideas in bubbles around that core idea and draw links from one to the other. Link unrelated ideas together and see what that sparks.
  • When writing a scene, make it multilayered by filtering it through all five of your senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch. Note the dominate sense operating within the scene, then replay it in your imagination, using a different sense. Note how it changes your approach to writing the scene.

Summary

There are many ways to generate new story ideas. Personal experience, keeping a file, brainstorming with others and asking the what-if question, are just some of them. 

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Essential Characters in Stories

Travis, in Taxi Driver, combines characters is of two essential characters - hero and villain simultaneously.
Travis Bickle, in Taxi Driver, combines the characteristics of two essential characters – protagonist and villain, simultaneously.

Casting essential characters, such as a protagonist and antagonist is of little value unless you surround them with other characters to react or relate to. Indeed, your choice of characters may be one of the most crucial decisions you take in writing a story.

Here, it is helpful to remember that each character performs a certain function in your tale. Knowing your story premise—the problem to be solved by the protagonist, allows you to design a cast of characters who test, resist, and assist the protagonist to achieve this goal.

Four Primary Characters

In the book Screenwriting, Raymond G. Frensham suggests that there are four primary character types you need to include:

Protagonist

The job of this character is to propel the story forward. This character’s desire to achieve the goal is a crucial aspect of the story. His decisions motivate his actions and explain why the pursuit of this goal is necessary–given the character’s background, beliefs, desires, and commitments. 

Antagonist

The antagonist or nemesis is the character who most opposes the protagonist as the former attempts to pursue his goal. This character is a visible and persistent generator of conflict in the story. Without him it is difficult to muster enough energy to drive events forward.

Occasionally, ambivalent antagonists, or, anti-heroes are the protagonists of the tale, such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (Robert de Niro).

Essential characters are the tools through which the writer puts the story premise to the test.

Mirror Character

A mirror character, also known as a reflection or support character is one who is most aligned with the protagonist. This character type supports the protagonist and adds colour and resonance by helping to make him more credible through dialogue and action. Without this character as foil, it is difficult to create a protagonist who can examine himself without resorting to stilted monologues or static inwardly-reflective scenes.

Romance Character

This character is the object of your protagonist’s sexual or romantic desires–the reward delivered at the end of the journey. The romance character may also, however, support or bedevil the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal–at least initially. This is because without conflict, the relationship degrades into stasis and boredom. Ultimately, however, the protagonist and his love interest end up together to live happily (or unhappily) ever after.

Rules of Thumb

In designing your cast remember the following:

Character types should be introduced by the end of act I; certainly no later than the start of act II.

The antagonist/protagonist conflict is the chief driver of your story.

Exploring your protagonist’s inner motivation and conflict is requisite. 

Summary

Essential characters interrogate your story premise by exploring it from several angles—through the eyes of each character. Opinions differ about the ideal number of types, but the four discussed above set the lower limit.

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Planning your story

Lagos Egri was a big believer in story planning
The famous teacher, Lagos Egri, was a great believer in story planning

Whether you’re a pantser or a pedantic outliner (I’m somewhat of an in-betweener), I believe that having an overall snapshot of your story—properly planning your tale—raises its quality and lessens the time it takes to write it.

Here is the process I followed in planning my post-apocalyptic novel, The Land Below.

Story Planning

I started by writing down my story’s premise. The story premise is a sentence, sometimes referred to as the logline by screenwriters, which captures the essence of your story—what is unique, but believable about it. It highlights its major twists and turns and ties the inner and outer journeys together, in part, through the knot of the moral premise, or theme.

I next tackled the outer journey. This is the what and how of your story. It defines the goal the protagonist strives to achieve by the end of the story.

The goal, determined at the first turning point, is then kicked around by the midpoint and the second turning point, and is attained, or not, at the end of the final, must-have confrontation with the antagonist. Here I ensured that I had three or four major incidents in mind, including the inciting incident.

The inner journey, by contrast, is why the outer journey happens the way it does. It tries to explain the protagonist’s mental and emotional states and the decisions he takes that lead to the actions at the level of the outer journey.

In planing The Land Below, I made sure I knew who the main characters of my story would be. Each character represents a point of view and drives the plot forward.

The inner journey also shows how and why the character changes during the story. It is a blow by blow explanation of, at the very least, the turning points and the midpoint. This forces the writer to consider the reasons why the protagonist acts in the way that he does. I always ensure that I have written a paragraph or two on the inner journey prior to starting any story.

In the words of Lagos Egri, “The ending proves the theme.” Is your protagonist a good guy who manages to overcome the antagonist and save the world and win the heart of the girl he loves? If so, your theme may well be: Good guys carry the day. I always know the theme of my story before I begin to write it.

A protagonist? Certainly. An antagonist? Check. A love interest? Yes. A mentor? A sidekick? I think of my characters in terms of the function they have to perform in the overall story argument. The details, the flesh and bone stuff, I build from a series of traits and incidents as I went along.

The Land Below went on to win several prizes as a result. You can download a free sample from the novel on my Amazon page.

Summary

Planning a great story premise, the outer and inner journeys, the theme and ending, and cast of characters, are important elements to consider before writing your story.

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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.