Tag Archives: author

Keep it Simple, Stupid!

Man scratching his head while reading a book

Keeping it simple:

We’ve all read books and articles in which ideas rendered by verbose, obscure language are tied up into long sentences and knotted paragraphs.

I know I have.

When I started reading for my Ph.D on narrative structures I needed aspirin to keep the headaches away. I even considered going on antidepressants. How could I ever contribute to the field when I could not even understand the gist of what I was reading?

I understood the words of course. My problem was not a limited vocabulary. My problem was making sense of the convoluted way experts expressed themselves.

Their approach was to pack as much complexity, eccentricity, and obscurity into a sentence as possible; balance as many relative clauses on the back of the main clause and add as many qualifiers and modifiers to it as they could.

Do it consistently and you’d be allowed to join that exclusive club from which the common person is barred by default: The specialists club.

It was hard going but I stuck to the task. I remember the day of my breakthrough. I was sitting on the Ipswich train from Brisbane. The ride home was a good half-hour and I often used the time to catch up on my reading. I was wading through postmodernism and had previously failed to make much headway.

Then it happened. A particularly obscure paragraph suddenly flicked into focus. I blinked and read it again.

Yes, it definitely made sense. So did the next paragraph. And the next. Before long, I found I understood the whole chapter.

I quietly congratulated myself. I was no longer masquerading as an academic. I was an academic. I could not only understand the speak, I would soon be able to emulate it.

It was not long before my writing and speech adopted the mannerisms of a specialist. I solicited nods and smiles from fellow academics and frowns and head-shakes from everyone else.

I had arrived.

It was only years later, after niggling doubts about the usefulness of obscure forms of expression were fanned by my experience in lecturing college students, that I began to investigate the alternatives.

I poured over every style manual I could get my hands on—from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, to Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

I became convinced that language that explores difficult concepts and ideas need not in itself be difficult to understand. Clear and precise writing that illuminates rather than confounds, writing that is accessible to anyone with a mastery of English, is preferable even when discussing academic matters. This is not dumbing-down language. It is making it more democratic—surely the tacit goal of any discipline.

You may notice from this post that I have not quite managed to expel the very elements I criticise from my own writing. The road to brevity, clarity, and precision is strewn with detours, but I am trying to stay on it.

My students are always the first to tell me when I stray.

Summary

Aim for brevity, precision, and clarity in writing.

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Great Villain? Great Hero? Great Story!

Chess gameThe success of a story largely depends on how well the writer uses the protagonist’s outer and inner journeys to prove the theme.

But it’s not all just about the protagonist. Behind every successful hero lurks a relentless and resourceful villain.

Novice writers tend to develop their heroes and villains separately, instead of crafting them as polar opposites of a single narrative entity.

If your hero is a clever, clean-cut, Kung fu expert you need a powerful villain to stand up to him. Pacific Rim, is filled with battle-hardened heroic types, manning highscraper-tall machines. The writer had to come up with monster-size villains to threaten them.

The more powerful your hero, the more powerful your villain needs to be in order to generate risk, suspense, and excitement — to dangle the possibility that he may indeed defeat the hero.

Strength, of course, is not merely physical. In Ordinary People, the mom is a formidable and relentless opponent whose implacable determination to take custody of her young son drives the plot forward.

Although villains are crafty and tireless plotters, they are not 100% bad. Remember, villains don’t see themselves as villainous. They feel justified in doing what they do — in their minds, they are merely seeking revenge, righting a wrong, balancing the books, for a perceived injustice perpetrated against them.

Additionally, a successful villain knows how to punch the hero’s buttons. He takes advantage of the hero”s weakness. If your hero is a rich stockbroker, the villain is an even richer businessman who manipulates the market to bring him down. If your hero is a champion boxer, his opponent is a seven foot, three hundred pound Russian giant.

Remember, then, that the hero and villain form a single unit. Identify the hero’s weakness and the villain’s strength, and have the villain take advantage of that weakness — until the last moment when the tables turn and the hero uses the same technique against the him.

Lastly, have the final confrontation play out in the villain’s lair — the place that is most advantageous to the villain. It will raise the tension and fill your readers or audience with dread. Providing you have chosen an up-ending, it will also make your hero’s final victory that much sweeter.

Summary

The hero and villain are polar opposites. They form a single narrative unit. Use the hero’s weakness and the villain’s strength to complicate the plot and heighten tension. Reverse this technique to achieve your hero’s final victory.

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How to keep your story interesting through reversals

Arrow and sun graphicKeeping our story interesting as we navigate towards the major pivot points (the inciting incident, the first and second turning points, the midpoint, and climax), takes some doing.

This is because we need time to lay out essential information and perform certain tasks in support of character development and plot that will only pay off later. But this may cause interest in our story to wane. Reversals are one way to keep our readers or audience engaged.

Reversals are well-placed surprises. No story can really function without them. They occur when you create a certain expectation in the reader or audience, only to surprise them a moment later with another:

1. A child enters an abandoned house on a dare and hears a sound coming from the steps leading down to the basement. Suddenly, a shadow appears on the wall, growing impossibly larger. The child shuts her eyes, unable to face the source of the shadow. After what seems an eternity, she hears another sound and opens her eyes, only to discover that the shadow is cast from a mangy cat caught in a slither of light from below.

2. A mother enters her daughter’s room to find the bed empty and the window wide open. We assume by her expression that her teenage daughter has snuck out of the bedroom, despite being grounded. The mother hears the toilet being flushed and smiles with relief, but the smile quickly evaporates when the bathroom door opens and a young man exits, followed by her daughter.

Here, within the space of a few seconds, we have two reversals that keep us engaged through the mechanism of surprise.

3. In The Wild Bunch a robbery results in a tremendous gunfight. Lucky to get away with their lives, the robbers reach safety and open the bags to count their loot only to discover they are filled with washers. This is both a reversal and a pivot point since it changes the plot. We should remember, however, that reversals are most useful when applied to smaller dramatic beats, since major turning points are potentially interesting enough on their own.

Summary

Reversals are dramatic beats placed between major turning points of a story designed to keep interest from flagging.

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Is this your story?

Mother reading story to child

Your Story:

A student recently asked me whether there is a template for writing a story that adheres to the sort of structure that I, and others, teach in class.

I provided her with one type of example, while simultaneously emphasising that there are no real shortcuts to accomplished writing, only lampposts highlighting the journey ahead.

Here’s what I said:

“A likable Hero finds herself in a position of undeserved misfortune and decides, after initially refusing, to take action to redress the situation. But the harder she tries, the more embroiled she becomes in mounting stakes and deepening dilemmas, each, more dangerous and difficult than the last. This forces her to search deep within herself for a different solution. In doing so, she discovers, at the last minute, a liberating truth about herself which allows her to achieve her goal by tackling past misconceptions, moral flaws, and misguided plans.”

What I like about this description of a story is that it addresses both the outer and inner journeys through the character’s developmental arc. It reminds us that the inner journey steers the outer journey through the decisions our Hero makes at pivotal moments. It hints at a universal truth — that the only way our Hero can achieve the outer goal is by implementing the wisdom that comes from having faced near defeat.

Summary

Although story templates, are, by definition, reductive and constrictive, they do serve as starting points for the journey ahead.

Emotion Rules!

happy little girl's face

Joy!

If there’s one thing my friend and mentor, the late South African filmmaker, Elmo De Witt, taught me it is to focus on emotion in the stories I write. “Without emotion, no one will care about your story, no matter how much cleverness you weave into it,” he was fond of saying. How true. His early films, such as Môre, Môre (Tomorrow, Tomorrow), are testaments to that fact.

He’s not the only one. Here’s William M. Akers on the subject: “Give the reader an emotional experience or you’re wasting your time.”

But how do we do this? Here are some suggestions:

Never miss an opportunity to create an emotional moment, even in passing. Your Hero buys a newspaper one evening from a street vendour, a worse-for wear old man who looks like he’ll be stuck with the day’s remaining stock. Our Hero pays for the paper and moves on. The plot function of this bridging scene is for the Hero to discover, hidden somewhere on the back page, a vital clue to his case. Function achieved. Great scene. Right?

Wrong. It’s a missed opportunity.

How about having our Hero buy the whole pile of papers just to help the old man out? The plot remains intact, but adds a layer of compassion, which makes us feel something! This makes for a more successful scene.

Emotion can be anything: compassion, sadness, fear, lust, joy. In Rear Window Grace Kelly arrives at Jimmy Steward’s house with an overnight case. She opens it and we see she has packed a nighty. We gulp with anticipation, knowing she intends to sleep with him.

In the film, On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando confronts Rod Steiger about the thrown fight that ruined his life: “I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody.” The scene brims over with sadness and regret, which helps make it one of the most memorable.

And, how about one of the most moving scenes of all time – Dead Poet’s Society? Fired for encouraging students to think and feel for themselves, John Keating is about to leave his beloved classroom forever, under the withering gaze of the man who fired him, when one after the other, the students ignore possible expulsion and defiantly stand on their desks in support, calling out: “Oh, Captain, my Captain.” This is not only a plot victory for Keating, and his beliefs, but a hugely successful emotional moment, too. I don’t know about you, but my handkerchief was soaked through by the time the titles rolled.

The point is that we tend to remember, for a long time after, finely crafted scenes that reveal important information, but scenes that are supercharged with emotion, we remember forever.

Summary

Supercharge your scenes with emotion, and do it often. Your story will be more memorable for it.

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Observe, Understand, Write.

Woman sitting on park bench

Hey, that's my spot!

People, in the main, are full of foibles, idiosyncrasies, kinks. We like to do things in a certain way, especially the small things: trace a particular path to work from the parking lot, place our shampoo bottle just-so on the basin, put on the right shoe first, rather than the left. We create little rituals, which, ostensibly, grant us comfort, provide us with some semblance of meaning, and, perhaps, even point us to some deeper truth.

Studies by psychologists, neurologists, and a myriad of other squabbling specialists offer us explanations that range from outright pathology, to the physical deepening of neuron pathways in our brains.

As a writer of novels, I am, of course, interested in the various in-depth explanations of ritual and habit. I routinely read papers on neuroscience, psychology, quantum physics, and the social ‘sciences’. But the truth is that I am far more concerned with describing emotional motivation as a function of drama in a story.

I remind myself that the best stories are not simply about philosophy, psychology, social justice, although, they do check those boxes. The best stories endure because they offer us good drama. They engage our emotions. If they do get us to wrestle with the underlying concepts at all, they do so because they first get us to feel something about the people — colourful, authentic characters brimming over with kinks, foibles, and rituals.

Every Friday morning, I like to eat hotcakes with butter and syrup at McDonalds before my first lecture on documentary filmmaking at a college in downtown Johannesburg. I’m usually the first customer to be served when the doors open at 6am – I leave home early to avoid bumper-to-bumper traffic later.

But sometimes I am pipped to the post by an even earlier bird – the same one each time.

Not much of a problem in the grand scheme of things. There are, after all, more than enough hotcakes to go around. Besides, the bun-patty-egg meals are far more popular.

But then, there is the small matter of my favourite spot.

The table, tucked away in the far corner, is flanked on two sides by large windows that look out into the parking lot and the trees that surround it. I really like that spot. I like it almost as much as I like my hotcakes. I am convinced that they taste better eaten there.

The trouble is, so does the earlier bird.

Now, good manners would have me yield my spot to her, even if, for some reason, I clear the counter with my tray before she does.

And I do. Usually.

But pettily enough, I secretly wish I got there just a minute earlier. I find myself scanning the interior of the shop for my spot even as I’m pulling into the parking area. That long walk to the front entrance feels like a race to the finish line. It informs my behavior for the next minute or two.

Thinking about it now, I can’t help shaking my head in embarrassment.

Yet, despite this, I believe such foibles, habits, and inclinations, trivial as they are, help make us who we are – either because they speak of more a serious condition that needs identifying, or because they offer us a chance to rid ourselves of pettiness as we struggle to learn and grow from life’s lessons.

And speaking of lessons, there is that character in my next novel with a penchant for early-morning Macdonalds hotcakes and corner tables that has just decided to try out a different spot-and-meal combination, and to do so graciously…

Summary

Studying eccentric behaviour that we engage in on a daily basis helps us write captivating, fictional characters that bristle with life, authenticity, and colour.

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Penned: Tell Your Story

PennedApp

Penned:

AN INDIE writer’s path to success is difficult one. The journey not only demands writing excellence, but marketing acumen as well. In this post I want to highlight a free and useful utility for indie writers working on iPhones and iPads that may make the marketing part of the journey a little easier. I have it on good authority the app is about to be released on android, too. Its name is Penned.

Penned allows you to create a profile and upload sample chapter(s) of your book in a genre of your choosing. I found the interface to be intuitive and easy to use, although it did crash a couple of times on my iPad.

The app allowed me to upload chapters from three of my novels: Scarab, Scarab II, and The Level for display. Like Wattpad, the programme links writers with readers and other writers, encouraging comments and debate on the work presented. Anyone liking what they read on Penned can go to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or wherever their work is sold, and buy a copy there. I’ve received several comments already, and have even seen a slight bump up in sales on my Amazon page, which, for an indie writer, is all to the good.

Of course, there are many other forums for this sort of discussion, exhibition, and discovery of work to occur, but what is especially cool for an indie writer about a relatively new app is the terrain has not yet become crowded. Needless to say the situation may change as the programme gains exposure and popularity.

Any effort to increase the number of places where indie writers can discover, exhibit, and discuss work has to get a thumbs-up, and Penned certainly gets mine.

Why don’t you give it a try? The space provided by this app may be just the place where you make your next big breakthrough!

Summary

Penned is a great free app for writers and readers that allows you to upload and share sample chapters of your work. It’s a great new way to discover new talent, as well as to introduce yourself to others.

How to Take the Yawn out of Literature

Baby yawning

The Big Yawn:

An irksome thought has been slouching around in my head for some time now. I haven’t written about it before, because, well, it can’t possibly be true, can it? And if it is, isn’t it more a reflection on me than the great novels and novelists it concerns?

You decide, remembering that the opinions expressed below, are, of course, entirely my own.

The irksome thought is this: Why do so many great novels, some from the pens of literary giants, bore the pants off me? Why, in some works of literature, does it take two hundred pages for the protagonist to discover her goal? Why has the mythic succumbed to the microscopic, and the grand to the mundane, under the guise of being the real treasure?

Yes, many modern, prize-winning stories are immaculately crafted around intricate themes, characters, and imagery. Yes, they examine the human condition. Yes, they peel away the layers of illusion that surrounds us and shed light on the little things that make life what it is. Yes, they are about real people facing real problems—the opposite to Hollywood’s over-the-top spectacles, unrealistic settings, and extra-terrestrial endeavours.

But, my gosh, why must they be so darned boring? (Alas, to me, anyway).

Why must the goal of the story be so buried beneath details of someone’s bowel movements, explored at the most crude and mundane scale, chocked with backstory and philosophy, that the outer journey seems obscured, or is, at least, trivialised?

What’s wrong with creating an exciting, visible outer journey that is driven by relentless pace, surprises, and colorful events? After all, one of the greatest storytellers of all time, Homer, swore by it it. The Iliad and the Odyssey are about Heroes undertaking grand and challenging tasks—stories about larger-than-life struggles. Little room for boredom here.

But times have changed, you say. We don’t believe in Heroes anymore. We don’t believe in monsters. Besides, you’re talking about the adventure/science fiction/fantasy genres, you say. Literature has to root itself in reality if it is to be taken seriously. It is the little things, the everyday events examined through the lens of genius that ought to comprise modern, prize-winning literature, you stress, with a wag of your finger.

Well, that’s because we probably disagree on the function of story. Stories that have me reaching for two aspirins after reading just don’t cut it with me, anymore. I do want to grow, to observe, to be educated, but I also want to be entertained.

Am I suggesting that ‘serious’ literary novelists dispense with their aching character studies, searing observations into the human psyche, or their insightful, if obscure, philosophical rumination? Not at all. But I am suggesting that they give their stories some pace, make them interesting and, God forbid, grant them exciting goals.

After all, if this was good enough for Homer, it ought to be good enough for us all!

End of rant.

Summary

There is no reason that literary stories can’t be driven by pace, a tangible goal, and exciting, adventurous characters who intrigue as much as they entertain.

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How to Pace Your Story

The Darkest Moment:

The Darkest Moment:

One of the reasons that we, as story tellers, need to master structure is so that we may position our narrative events, the high and lows, tension and release, in a way that keeps our readers and audience on their toes. Too much of a good or bad thing makes for boring stories. In this post, I want to focus on one particular structural element—the big gloom.

Towards the end of the second act, way after the midpoint has occurred, the writer needs to craft a low amongst lows—a deeply disturbing and terrifying moment when the goal seems impossible to achieve, when the Hero is on his knees and the last ember of light is about to go out.

This is the second turning point, which unleashes the third act, the moment that screenwriting professor Richard Walter of UCLA calls the big gloom, and others have called the lowest ebb, or the darkest moment of the soul. If this moment—which should never be confused with the climax—occurs too early, at the end of the first act, for example, the story will run out of steam before the third act.

In Nothing in Common, the big gloom occurs when Tom Hanks finally understands the extent of his father’s medical condition.

In American Graffiti it occurs during Dreyfuss’s phone conversation with the fantasy girl in the T-bird when he learns that they will never meet—that he will never find what he seeks and that his destiny will forever remain unfulfilled as long as he stays with his old buddies in his claustrophobic, but safe, hometown.

In Terms of Endearment it is the moment in the hospital when we learn of the impending death of the young mother, and in About Last Night it occurs during the montage in which a ‘liberated’ Rob Lowe suffers the torments of hell for his lack of commitment to the very woman whom he earlier thought he wanted to be rid of.

Although these examples are triggered by outer journey events, their true power comes from the effect they have on the Hero’s inner journey. By forcing the Hero down to the deepest depths of doubt and despair, the story positions itself to tell of a final resurgence that is uplifting and engaging—a story with exciting variations, highs and lows which will keep readers and audiences breathless with anticipation.

Summary

The big gloom is the lowest point in the Hero’s journey. It occurs before the beginning of the end, and defines the point in the outer and inner journey where the Hero seems the furthest from achieving his goal.

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How to Fix Your Story with Archetypes

Greek statues

Archetypes:

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. Here is a look at their archetypal characters, some of which 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 his 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 such argument sagas as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.

Does your story ‘feel’ wrong?

Do your characters drift?

Identity your characters in terms of function to see if they belong to one or other archetype. Re-examine their function in your story. Are they doing their job as per their definition?

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, perhaps, 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.

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