This week I want to announce an exciting new venture—a brand new YouTube channel for aspiring writers — Get Writing.
Yes, after ten years of writing about writing on http://stavroshalvatzis.com I’m finally stepping into the youtube arena to provide additional help for emerging writers.
The channel will complement my usual blog spot, providing analysis and commentary on the myriad of writing techniques, but will add that all-important audio-visual dimension to the mix.
“Get Writing is a new YouTube channel that adds an audio-visual dimension to the material found on this website.”
Additionally, I will be inviting to the platform a selection of subscribers, some of whom are established authors, screenwriters and film makers to share their knowledge as well as to discuss their forthcoming projects with us. Film and book reviews are also on the radar, as is my sincere attempt to answer your individual questions through YouTube’s comments section.
And despite my initial performance on camera being ever-so-serious and wooden, I believe the channel is poised to become an invaluable resource for aspiring writers. So, click on this link, or search, “How to write fabulous scenes” within YouTube, subscribe, and let’s Get Writing!
Evocative language. What is it? Simply put, evocative language builds expectation, tension, and establishes mood. It sucks the reader into the story through the very vividness of its prose and dialogue.
We FADE UP on the night sky. Dark clouds swallow the stars. We hear a LOW-END RUMBLE. It sounds almost like thunder, only it is somehow more alive. Like the growl of an unseen beast. We TILT DOWN to find…
In the scene above the descriptive language adds to the mood and setting. Words such ‘rumble’, thunder’ and growl’ lend a sense of menace, as does the simile of the ‘unseen beast.’ This is a powerful start to the episode—one that hooks us into the story from the get-go, primarily through the power of the language.
“Evocative language helps to hook the reader into the story from the get-go.”
“Incandescent symbols spiral along the moist eye of the cyclone. I jot them down as quickly as I can, but it is difficult to keep up. Look directly at them and they vanish. I catch them out of the corner of my eye. Like the half-glimpsed phantoms haunting my childhood, they are shapes that the mind has more to do in the making than the eye in perceiving…
… And suddenly I see them, grey, cloud-sized ghosts shimmering behind the symbols. They slide along the inside of the funnel like images on the curved screen of some experimental movie theater whose aspect ratio is not quite right.”
Here, the language is both concrete and ethereal. The eye of the cyclone is ‘moist’. The ‘symbols’ are like ‘half-glimpsed phantoms’—‘cloud-sized ghosts shimmering’ as they slide along the inside funnel of the storm. The simile of ‘ghosts’ appearing on the screen like ‘some experimental movie theater whose aspect ratio is not quite right’ is unexpected and creates a sense of the old and new worlds colliding. Lastly, the cyclone is as much a symbol of the inner turmoil of the protagonist as it is a dangerous, physical event. As readers we sense this through the subtext and it raises our involvement and expectation.
Evocative language, then, is versatile. It creates deeper levels of meaning and emotion. It helps the writer set the mood, build expectation and sustain the plot and action.
Exercise: Locate a passage in your own writing that describes a place, character or time. Find the verbs and nouns that describe it. Is the language as tactile and sense-driven as it can be? If not, amp up the vividness of the language.
Use evocative language to create the appropriate mood for your scenes.
Since character is fundamental to storytelling, it is helpful to understand the intricate relationship between character, action and story on a scene-by-scene basis—and that involves understanding the role of desire and fear in initiating action.
I propose a schema in which the writer inputs both the character’s (1) desire for the goal, and (2) his fear in trying to achieve it, (informed by present challenges as well as past wounds), into a kind of story-mixing device which then (3) motivates the character, resulting in (4) action. Action, in turn, blends with that of other characters, resulting in (5) narrative events that comprise the story.
Too often, we get lost in the story we want to tell. This can turn our characters into mere puppets serving the plot. What is useful about this schema is that it forces us to think about a character’s motivation for the actions he initiates. It draws our attention to the character’s inner life—his wounds, hopes and fears.
“Desire and fear plug into motivation, which initiates character action.”
Further, if we apply the schema at the major turning points of the story—the first turning point, the mid point, the second turning point and the climax—we can more effectively combine the physical journey of the tale with the inner journey of the protagonist and other characters.
Additionally, the schema is expandable. It forces us to think about the character’s past—to ask, what are the roots of his hopes and fears? In short, it encourages us to think about backstory elements that help explain his motivation.
Consider the scene in which Breaking Bad’sWalter White steps inside the den of the psychopathic drug dealer, Tuco, to retrieve the meth Tuco stole from his partner, Jesse Pinkman after beating him up. What Walter really wants, however, is for Tuco to distribute his meth. Walter is patted down by Tuco’s goons and seems destined for the same treatment Jessie received.
What is Walter’s motivation for such a seemingly foolish, suicidal mission?
Let’s analyse this powerful scene in terms of our schema: Walter’s (1) desire is to get Tuco to pay for the meth he stole, compensate Jesse for the beating he gave him, and agree to distribute the meth Walter and Jesse produce. His (2) fear is that Tuco will kill him there and then! His (3) motivation for the (4) action that follows stems from his growing confidence, based on the quality of his product and the opportunity to build up his meth business through Tuco.
He threatens Tuco that if he does not let him leave unharmed he will blow every one up with the chemicals he has brought with him disguised as meth. To prove his point he throws a shard of ‘product’ on the floor causing an explosion. (5) The result is that not only does Tuco pay Walter for the meth he stole from Jesse, he pays for having beaten him up too. What’s more, Tuco orders a large shipment of meth from Walter and agrees to pay up front for it! Walter has more than succeeded in gaining his goal.
This is a brilliant scene, from a brilliant series, and one that can be understood by applying the input-output schema I have offered above.
Exercise: Pluck out the protagonist from one of your stories. Ensure that your protagonist exhibits a mixture of desire and fear which motivates his actions, especially at the turning points.
Input a character’s desire and fear into the mix to determine that character’s motivation for action.
Thoughts on the texture, colour and music in writing.
The internet is replete with advice on story structure—on turning points, character arcs, symbolism, and the like. Certainly, those structures are essential to the craft of accomplished writing. But there is another aspect that is not as often discussed. This is at the layer of language—the choice of words, their texture, their sound and colour.
The quality of language is what we encounter first; in a novel, it may first manifest in a single sentence or paragraph. The point is that if we are attracted to the language we are more likely to keep on reading.
Consider the textures, colours and music rendered in the examples below:
I heard the sonic rip of a military jet, like a giant trowel being dragged through wet concrete, but saw only blue above, a raw and saturated blue that seemed cut from an inner wedge of sky. ~ Rachel Kushner
“Memorable language has its own particular texture, colour and music. Once experienced, it tends to stay with you forever.”
Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing and the sands of the beach, which on March nights glimmered like powdered light, had become a stew of mud and rotten shellfish. ~ Gabriel Garcia Marquez
But in another city, another valley, another ghetto, another slum, another favela, another township, another intifada, another war, another birth, somebody is singing Redemption Song, as if the Singer wrote it for no other reason but for this sufferah to sing, shout, whisper, weep, bawl, and scream right here, right now. ~Marlon James
Over the city lies the sweet, rotting odor of yesterday’s unrecollected sin. ~Hilary Mantel
And if I might be so bold as to include a passage from one of my own novels:
It’s an hour’s walk back home from O’Hara’s along the beach. I carry my notebook in my pocket and my slip slops in my hand. My bare feet squelch into the warm, wet cocktail of sand and shell fragments. Bubbles swell up between my toes, pop off then reappear like baby universes born out of the void by the pulse of quantum fluctuation. ~Stavros Halvatzis,The Nostalgia of Time Travel.
There are countless examples of textured writing; you will know them when you see them. Some will become permanent fixtures in your memory to be recited out aloud just to hear them. Do so whenever you feel your enthusiasm in your writing sag.
Exercise: What are some of your most beloved fragments of writing? List them in a journal. Read them out aloud to yourself, noting their colour, texture and music whenever you need a jab of inspiration.
Learn to use the texture, colour and music of language. Together with a deep knowledge of character and story structure it is the path to accomplished writing.
Typically, a protagonist in a story grows—at the very least he changes. The hero at the beginning of a tale is no longer the same person in terms of his skills and self-awareness he is at the end.
Making this change believable involves aligning the character’s actions to his inner growth. This is a point I have made several times on this site, though it bares repeating:
A change in self-awareness must lead to a change in the quality of a character’s actions.
In his chapter, The Arc Within The Plot (Creating Characters, the Complete Guide: Reader’s Digest), James Scott Bell explores the process in some depth. He provides the following example, which, I paraphrase here:
If your story is going to feature four major incidents in the life of a criminal—the crime, time in jail, a trial and sentence, and an aftermath in prison, create a table with four columns. In the first column, “The Crime,” briefly describe who your character is on the inside.
Next, go to the last column, “Prison.” Describe how the character has changed at the end. What has been his life lesson? Now go back and fill in the other columns to show a progression toward that final outcome. Create incidents powerful enough to justify the shifts in the character.
The character arc structure table will give you ideas for scenes that illustrate your character’s growth, which, in turn, will deepen your story. Start with the first and last events, then go back and fill in the middle parts.
“Use the character arc structure to help make your protagonist’s actions believable by mapping the growth in self-awareness to the lessons provided by outer events.”
In Scott Bell’s example, the columns show growth that culminates in a shift in character values.
Trial and Sentence.
Initially without pity, cynical.
Mistreated, but helped by another con.
Has to face the victims of his crime.
Compassion and empathy are what is needed in the world.
Changes his opinion of other prisoners.
Witness testimony shows him how he’s wasted his life so far. This sets the course for a future transformation.
Proven by how he treats a prison guard.
The character arc structure table.
In this example, then, the protagonist has gone from being cynical and callous to someone who regrets his criminal acts and comes to feel compassion for other people—even his jailers. The progression occurs through a series of impactful events. Tabling the events and tying them to inner growth helps to structure a believable transformation of the character.
Exercise:Review a story you’ve written. Can you tabulate four (or more) major events and correlate them to your protagonist’s shifting values and perceptions? If not try to do so.
One way to lay out the character arc structure is to map major events impacting your protagonist against his inner transformation.