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How accomplished writers use emotion draw us into their stories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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Plot from character

William Golding is a master at forging plot from character
William Golding is a master at forging plot from character.

The longer I think about stories, both as a writer and as a teacher, the more convinced I become that it all hinges on character.

It wasn’t always the case. When I was first starting out, I tended to emphasise the outer journey – the series of tangible events that exist at the level of plot. Back then I focused on the originality of the idea, the high concept, the attempt to grab one’s attention through a new and unique premise.

Certainly, these are important tools for developing a story. The success of my first novel, Scarab, is proof of that. 

But as I went along, my focus shifted to character. I began to conceive of a story from the inside out. I obsessed over the following questions. Does the character lack self-awareness at the beginning of the story? Moral and ethical values? What is her wound, couched in a secret? What must she learn/heal before she can accomplish her goal? Is there is tension between her want and her need? In short, how what is her character arc?

“Plot from character is an insurance policy against shallow and inauthentic character action.”

I began to see that the outer journey, the plot, needs, somehow, to be molded from the materials of the inner journey. And that the events occurring at the level of plot need to be synchronised to the flows that occur along the character arc. 

I recognised that understanding the character arc, therefore, is the true precursor of the story. It is reason the hero reacts to events or initiates action in the way that she does.

This realisation has made it easier to write action and plot as manifestation of character. It’s an insurance policy against writing shallow, inauthentic characters.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, I write about a man obsessed with fixing a dreadful mistake that resulted in the death of his wife many years previously. Every action, every thought he experiences stems from this obsession. Whatever else the story is about, it is also a tale about a driven man relentlessly attempting to do the impossible. A man who refuses to give up. In many respects his outer life is nothing more than a reflection of his inner life. 

One of the greatest examples in literature of how character shapes the story is found in William Golding’s great novel, The Spire. The novel describes the Dean of the Cathedral’s, (Jocelin’s) determination to build a spire on top of a structure that may not support the additional weight. The effort to convince the master builder to built it is a study in the consequences of mistaking pride and stubbornness for faith and strength. 

Summary

Plot from character is a methodology that many of the world‘s greatest writers have perfected.

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What constitutes great writing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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The story start – how to find it.

The Grudge involves a story start which sucks us in from the get-go.
The Grudge involves a story start which sucks us in from the get-go.

How do you choose your story start? What sort of incident do you use? Is it a cymbal crash to grab the reader’s or audience’s attention? Or a gradual build-up to draw them deeper into the world of the characters? 

There are many successful examples of both sorts of starts – Lord of the Rings is one. Speed is another. In his book Film Scriptwriting, A Practical Manual, Dwight V Swain calls finding the right moment to begin the storythe point of attack.

Swain suggests that in order to determine this optimal point in our tale we should ask ourselves the questions: What is the genre? Are you writing for impact, characterisation, or atmosphere? Only when you know the answer to those questions can you know what note to strike in your opening.

“A great story start is one which most affectively establishes mood while maintaining the reader’s or audiences attention.”

In The Grudge, a horror film, we are presented with a man standing with his back to us on the balcony of an apartment block several stories up. A woman, whom we presume to be his wife or lover, lies in bed, regarding him placidly. The man seems somber, pained, but calm. Suddenly, we see him tip himself over the railings and fall to the ground, killing himself.

The effect is one of shock, followed by intrigue and a series of questions: Why did the man commit suicide? What did the dark expression on his face mean? Why did the woman not see it coming? These questions demand answers and pull us into the story.

While the rest of the movie provides, a little at a time, the answers, the start poses the questions in an abrupt way. The screenwriter and director could have chosen to present events in chronological order, but that would have robbed the story of its mystery and dark intrigue. 

The same can be said of Memento, a neo-noir psychological thriller. Here the protagonist, who suffers from short term memory loss, can only remember events that have occurred no more than a few minutes back. 

In order to solve a life threatening problem, he leaves himself clues through a series of tattoos on his back. To make matters worse, the film relates the story about-face – from end to start. The note struck by the opening scenes, therefore, is one of extreme confusion and obfuscation.

Both openings in these examples are ideally suited to their specific stories. They provide maximum audience engagement.

Summary

Determine the tone you want to strike in your tale to help you determine your story start.

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Plot or Character?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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A matter of Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now Hemingway:

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

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

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

Two very contrasting styles! Two powerful pieces of writing.

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

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

Summary

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

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Significant action or dialogue?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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Have your audiences and readers feel emotion

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

This is simple to understand but difficult to achieve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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Improbable action? How to render it believable.

Interstellar - making character action believable.
Interstellar – making improbable action seem believable.

How do you make improbable action appear believable? 

In his book, Film Scriptwriting: A Practical Manual, Dwight V. Swain offers us two principles that underpin verisimilitude in stories – justification for everything that happens in the tale and a proportional response from the character to the events that confront him.

Justification boils down to the readers and audiences believing that given a specific personality type, a character would react to a challenge, to any sort of stimulus really, precisely in the way that he does. In short, if your readers understand why your character acts in a specific way, they will experience his or her actions as believable and appropriate.

But it is also important to render a character’s actions in proportion to the stimulus that initiates them. 

“Improbable action can be made probable by having it spring from the twin launchpads of justifiability and proportional response.”


Exaggerated, unmotivated behaviour, under normal circumstances, can spoil a scene. If a girl turns down a casual request for a date from a man she hardly knows and he then proceeds to burst into tears, his behavior would be considered an overreaction. 

If, on the other hand, a child were to run into a room, screaming and bleeding, and her mother were to ignore her in order to finish her bridge game, we would consider her behaviour as an underreaction. 

Over and under reactions are major flaws that undermine believability in stories.

In interstellar, the earth is dying. Humanity needs to find another home. Cooper, a conscientious, widowed engineer and former NASA pilot turned farmer, lives on a farm with his father-in-law, his 15-year-old son, and his 10-year-old daughter, Murphy.

After a dust storm, strange patterns appear in the dust in Murphy’s bedroom. Cooper realises the patterns were caused by gravity fluctuations that represent geographic coordinates in binary code.

Cooper follows the coordinates to a secret NASA facility headed by Professor John Brand, where he learns of the existence of a wormhole. When he is re-recruited by NASA to fly a mission through the wormhole to confirm the planet most suitable for mankind’s survival, he promises his distraught daughter that he will come back at any cost. This promise creates the motivational spine of the story. It helps Cooper’s actions to appear both justifiable and proportionate, despite the improbable nature of events in the story. It does this by balancing his duty to humanity with his unbreakable promise to his child.

Summary

Improbable character action can be rendered believable by making it justifiable and proportional to the events that initiate it.

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Evoke emotion if you want your stories to succeed.

Being able to evoke emotion is a must for masterful writing.

In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty reminds us that the ability to evoke emotion around the characters in the stories we write is the single most important skill to master. Here’s an extract from Katherine Mansfield’s, The Fly, that does just that.

A fly has fallen into an ink pot and can’t get out. The other character, referred to only as the boss, watches it struggle with glee.

“Help! Help! said those struggling legs. But the sides of the ink pot were wet and slippery; it fell back again and began to swim. The boss took up a pen, picked up the fly out of the ink, and shook it on a piece of blotting paper. For a fraction of a second, it lay still on the dark patch that oozed around it. Then the front legs waved, took hold, and, pulling its small, sodden body up, it began the immense task of cleaning the ink from its wings … it succeeded at last, and, sitting down, it began, like a minute cat, to clean its face. Now one could imagine that the little front legs rubbed against each other, lightly, joyfully. The horrible danger was over; it had escaped; it was ready for life again.

“Learn to evoke emotion through your characters. It is one of the keys to successful writing.”

But then, the boss had an idea. He plunged the pen back into the ink, leaned his thick wrist on the blotting paper, and, as the fly tried its wings, down came a heavy blot. What would it make if that? The little beggar seemed absolutely cowed, stunned, and afraid to move because of what would happen next. But then, as if painfully, it dragged itself froward. The front legs waved, caught hold, and more slowly this time, the task began from the beginning.”

This goes on until the fly is dead. If we can feel compassion for a fly, imagine what we can feel for animals and humans.

The writer may often amplify an emotion by providing new information to the reader but hide it from a character who may not yet understand it, such as a child. In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, I use this technique subtly to suggest a sense of unease in the relationship between a mother and her brother-in-law, as experienced through the sensibility of a child:

“One hot afternoon, my father’s older brother, Fanos, a mechanic with the merchant Greek navy, sailed into our lives, without warning, like a bottle washing out to shore. He carried a small black suitcase in his right hand. The hand was stained by a faded blue tattoo of an anchor that started at the wrist and ended at the knuckles. I found myself staring at it at every opportunity.

Would it be fine if he stayed with us for several days, while his ship underwent repairs at the port of Piraeus, he wanted to know? 

My father, who seemed both pained and glad to see him, said it would be, if that was all right with my mother. My mother had nodded and rushed out to the backyard to collect the washing from the clothes line. She had trudged back in and made straight for the bedroom where she proceeded to fold, unfold, and refold the clothes. She did this so many times that I thought she was testing out some new game, before asking me to play.” 

The boy may not understand the underlying conflict, but the reader does and that makes it doubly effective.

Summary

Learn to evoke emotion through your characters. It will draw readers and audiences into your stories.

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