Tag Archives: amwriting

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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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. 

Coincidence in Stories

Coincidence in Christmas in the film July
Coincidence is used adroitly in Preston Sturges’s 1940 comedy film.

Coincidence and how to use it effectively in stories.

Can a story contain a convenient coincidence without being deemed lazy and weak? After all, Charles Dickens’s work abounds with such narrative devices. I believe the answer is yes, but only if it is limited to one per story and is carefully woven into the structure of the tale.

Although life is riddled with what appears to be magnificent coincidences—the meeting of one’s future spouse by chance, the winning of a grand prize, the procurement of a lucrative job based on an impromptu internet search—stories are a different sort of animal.

In a story, the reader or audience expects material, especially coincidence, to be adroitly planned and crafted. Casual, haphazard coincidences are viewed for what they are: lazy writing. 

California University’s (Los Angeles) screenwriting graduate program chairman, Professor Richard Walter, too, is of the opinion that coincidence can work if the writer makes it important enough—such as having it launch or end the story, or form part of a main structural event, such as the inciting incident or turning point. 

In Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July, for example, well-intentioned pals fool a friend into believing that he has won a contest. In the end, it turns out that he actually has won the contest. Why does such a coincidence work? Partly because it is the only one in the film, and partly because it spins on a deliciously crafted irony.

In The China Syndrome, Jane Fonda and cameraman Michael Douglas, happen to be filming a story at a nuclear station. Something malfunctions at the plant and they record the incident. Here the coincidence is not offensive. 

Imagine, however, if, in seeking to add twists and turns to the tale, the writer had introduced a scene in which the footage was lost or destroyed. The crew then returned to shoot more material, when, lo and behold, another nuclear mishap occurred! Audiences would be outraged. What worked the first time around would not work again because such a coincidence would be unimaginative and repetitive. 

Summary

A single coincidence works best early or late in a story, runs on irony or surprise, and forms part of a major structural event such as the inciting incident or the first or second turning point.

Character Description in Screenplays and Novels

Character description and the Mona Lisa
No character description would be complete in this example without reference to Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile.

Character Description: In a typical screenplay or novel, character descriptions should be written when the characters first appear on the page. These descriptions should be brief and to the point. This post looks at this often misunderstood aspect.

In a screenplay, there are only two things to establish about a character from the outset—gender and age. Pedantic descriptions about physical attributes, cars and pets, musical instruments played, should be avoided, although, in a novel, lengthier descriptions are more common.

If a characteristic is crucial to the story, state this succinctly. If, for example, one of your characters, say, Bruce Dunn’s graceful movement somehow ends up saving his life then foreshadow this in your description of him: Bruce Dunn was built like an army barracks shithouse but moved with the grace of a ballerina.

Lengthy, unmotivated descriptions slow the thrust of the story and betray the writer’s inexperience. 

So, why do so many writers include them in their stores? Because it is far easier to describe a character’s varied physical attributes and traits than to reveal them adroitly through dialogue and action in a scene.

Character description that references physical stature, hair colouring, and weight, therefore, is relevant only if it foreshadows aspects of the plot, such as the stutter that causes the murderer to trip up at the end, or the lack of height that motivates a man to over-achieve in other areas. 

This extends to emotional traits as well. Indeed, one of the best ways to make emotional and physical traits germane to the story is to interweave them and have them explain some aspect of the character’s action(s).

This brevity of description extends to the novel and short story too, for much the same reasons. In her wonderful book on the craft of the short story,  Inside Stories for Readers and Writers, Trish Nicholson offers us several examples of this skill.

In Modus Operandi she describes a character’s physical size: “A big man, too–he had to duck under doorways. His hands were as wide as dinner plates. To see those long fleshy fingers you’d realize the strength in them.” This description is not only germane to the story but it foreshadows menacing aspects in the plot.

Summary

Character description should be brief and germane. Describe only those traits of a character that serve as triggers to the plot, and do so succinctly

Story Questions: What are they?

Story questions with William Goldman
William Goldman was at pains to ask the right story questions prior to writing his novels and screenplays.

Asking the right story questions: In his book, Screenwriting, R. G. Frensham quotes William Goldman as saying: “Movies are about story: is it well told, is it interesting? If it isn’t, it doesn’t matter how talented the rest of it is.” This is also true of the novel as well as the stage play.

So, how do you give yourself the best chance of writing an interesting, well-executed story? This post offers some suggestions: 

Having chosen your story idea, you should begin to implement it by going from the general (idea) to the specific (individual characters and events). Here are a number of questions intended to help you clarify, expand, and tell your story in an effective way. Write a paragraph in answer to each one.

Nine story questions that will help you write a better story

1. Why do I want to write this story?

2. Who do I think will want to watch/read it?

3. What is it about? 

4. Who is it about?

5. Why is it about this character rather than some other?

6. What is the importance of background or setting?

7. What is the most fitting genre for the story? 

8. What is the moral of the story?

9. What is the main theme of the story?

In answering these questions you are preparing the soil for planting and harvesting. It gives you the time you need to probe your own motivation for writing the story and forces you to think about its deeper structures. 

Summary

Answering a number of pertinent story questions prior to writing your story helps you to explore the elements, structures, and motivations that are necessary in telling a tale that is interesting and well-executed.

How Long to Write Each Day?

Write Stephen King
Stephen King believes that one should write every day

Writers write. We’ve all heard this succinct advice on becoming a writer. 

But how often should we write? Where should we write? Where do we start? Where do we finish? 

How long should we write each day?

Answers to these questions fill countless of books, articles, blogs. Often they disagree.

Each writer brings his own approach to the art and technique of writing. Stephen king believes one should write every day. Jeff Somers, the New Jersey sci-fi writer believes it’s pointless to force it. We may agree on general principles, yet disagree on specific habits. 

When I write a new novel or novella, I generally won’t stop working unless I complete the chapter I’m working on. The chapters of my novels tend to be short, so the task isn’t that daunting. 

Having thought about the forthcoming chapter the previous day—the story beats that have to be struck and the character development that needs to occur—I keep to the task until that last sentence is in place. I end my chapters with a revelation or hook that creates expectation in reader, and this guides my thinking the following day; it makes the process easier — for me. 

This might not be the case for others. 

A fellow writer, and winner of several writing awards — no slouch in the craft of writing— told me that he often stops writing before completing the scene he’s working on, whether it’s giving him problems or not. He finds that tackling the material the following day brings fresh insight to his writing. I suspect this is because he is more a pantser than a plotter, but the point is well taken. One shoe size does not fit all. There are, indeed, different strokes for different folks. 

It’s helpful to keep this in mind as we pour over the voluminous suggestions of experts. Some nuggets of advice are more suited to our particular personalities and circumstances than others. We need to decide which to keep and which to throw away. 

After all, how long is a piece of string, anyway?

Summary

Study all the advice on how to write in general, including on how long to write each day, but use only what’s best suited to you.

The Role of the Archetype in Stories

Archetype and Story
How to work with an Archetype

In their book, Dramatica, Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley present a system for crafting stories, which, although somewhat counterintuitive, brims over with important advise—especially with regards how to work with the archetype. Here is a look at their archetypal characters, some of whom vary in naming convention from those put forward by the likes of Joseph Campbell and Christian Vogler.

The Protagonist (hero) and Antagonist, whom we recognise from other writers on the subject, form the first pair. The function of the protagonist is to pursue the goal identified towards the end of the first act and, hence, drive the story forward. The function of the antagonist is to try and stop him at all costs.

The next pair is Reason and Emotion. Reason is calm and collected. His decisions and actions are based solely on logic. Star Trek’s Spock is a typical example of this archetype. Bones, the ship’s doctor, on the other hand, wears his heart on his sleeve. Although a medical man, his opinions and actions are deeply emotional. He presents the emotional dimension of the moral premise.

The Sidekick and Skeptic represent the conflict between confidence and doubt in the story. The sidekick is the faithful supporter of the protagonist, although he may attach himself to the antagonist since his function is to show faithful support of a leading character. The skeptic on the other hand is the disbelieving opposer, lacking the faith of the sidekick. His function in the story is to foreshadow the possibility of failure.

The Guardian and Contagonist form the last pair of archetypal characters. The job of the guardian is that of a teacher and protector. He represents conscience in the story. Gandalf is such a character in Lord of the Rings. He helps the protagonist stay on the path to achieve success. By contrast, the contagonist’s function is to hinder the protagonist and lure him away from success. He is not to be confused with the antagonist since his function is to deflect and not to kill or stop the opposing character. George Lucas’s (Star Wars) Jabba the Hut is such a character. As with the sidekick, the contagonist may attach himself to the protagonist.

As a group, the archetypal characters perform essential functions within a story. Because they can be grouped in different ways, versatility can be added to their relationships. 

Their usefulness becomes apparent when editing your manuscript, especially in sagas such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings

Does your story ‘feel’ wrong? 

Do your characters drift? 

Identity the function of each character archetype to see if it is functioning correctly in your story.

Of course, the task becomes more complex when the archetypes are mixed to create more complex and realistic characters, but even then, you may be able to pin-point their essential combinations and, therefore, work to improve their shared functions—but that is the subject of another article.

Summary

Understanding archetypes and their function in your story will assist you in troubleshooting loose and imprecise aspects of your tale.

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.