Tag Archives: MyWANA

Small Acts of Kindness

Man giving man coinsOne of the most important things I learnt as a writer is that without knowing how to solicit emotion through my characters, I’d fail to draw readers into my stories and keep them there.

Emotion ties us to a story. It associates us with the characters who evoke it. It is the foundation upon which we build the whole cathedral, because if we don’t care about the characters, we won’t care about the story.

Emotion does not always have to be rendered on a large canvas. Sometimes a culmination of smaller brush-strokes is just as effective as a grand gesture, especially when applied unexpectedly.

In my most recent novel The Land Below, released on Amazon in February, a minor character, the bitter and unlikable Miss Baithwate prevents an old man from visiting a boy, his only friend in the world. She asks him to leave her hostel, accusing him of making the place look untidy.

But as she watches the old man limp away, she suddenly changes her mind and invites him in. She hides this random act of kindness under a gruff tone and a crusty demeanour, but the old man recognises the good in her, referring to her as his dear Miss Baithwate.

Not a major incident in the story, but one which adds to the reservoir of emotions.

I remember feeling a tinge of sympathy for the lonely spinster when I added this small twist — a tinge I would not have felt had she allowed the old man to leave without seeing the boy.

Miss Baithwate suddenly sprang to life on the page for me. She was richer, deeper, more likable after this act. And so was my story.

Summary

Small acts of kindness deepen character and enrich any story.

Image: Chris Yarzab
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

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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Image: James Arboghast
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Personal Reflections on Story Structure

Silhouette of a butterfly on a flower

Butterflies in the Dark

Writers like to talk about writing. We chance upon each other at unlikely places, as if by homing signal.

I recently met a fellow writer queuing to cash a check from Amazon, like I was. We got to talking and, there and then, became friends. We now share ideas and suggestions via email, when meeting at the local bookstore isn’t possible.

Last week I ran into a novelist at the dairy section of a supermarket. The conversation quickly turned from the merits of cholesterol-reducing margarine to the study of story structure: I believed in it. He didn’t. We parted amicably enough, but the discussion got me thinking how my views on the subject have cured over time.

It was Elmo de Witt, the beloved South African filmmaker, who first suggested to me story structure could be studied, and one’s work could be improved because of it. I remember him handing me Syd Field’s The Screenwriters Workbook and asking me to read it.

“Without an understanding of structure you’re trying to scoop up butterflies in the dark, knowing they are out there, but mostly missing,” he told me. That was way back in the early 90s. Sadly, Elmo passed away in 2011, but I still remember his words clearly.

My initial reaction was unfavourable. I had graduated from university and film school with degrees in English Language and Literature and a Higher Diploma in the art and technique of filmmaking. I was young, confident – a bit of a know-it-all. What could any reductive approach to story-telling have to offer me? How could talent, spontaneity, flair, be nurtured through formulas? After all, before there were writing courses there were writers.

But as time went on, and I found myself staring at the blank pages on my desk, waiting for inspiration, the volume of Elmo’s words ratcheted up in my head.

I thought deeply about my reticence and I realised that it had less to do with any idealistic rejection of methodology than a fear of how colossal my ignorance on the subject of structure truly was: I was, after all, the resident screenwriter of Elmo de Witt Films. How could I admit I didn’t know a thing about Syd Field, and later, Christian Vogler, Michael Hague, John Truby, Linda Seger, and others? Rejection of the framework seemed my best defense.

Luckily, my head-in-the-sand attitude didn’t last. I realised in order to reject a piece of advice I first had to understand it. Not glibly, but deeply and innocently. Its nuances. Its nooks and crannies. That’s what constitutes integrity.

I began to read the books, and do the exercises, and grow my knowledge. By the time I was ready to reject the framework with impunity I found I didn’t want to. I found my understanding of structure had freed me from the vagaries of plot creation and allowed me to concentrate on the magic of character, theme, symbol, and story content.

Although my efforts at the time were directed mainly at the screenplay, I have come to recognise the novel, too, with its admittedly freer, more introspective, and lengthier flows, benefits from a deeper understanding of story structure.

This realisation has been invaluable to me. It has allowed me to move from one form to another with more ease than I could otherwise have managed.

That, at any rate, has been my experience. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience, too?

Summary

One of the most valuable lessons South African filmmaker Elmo de Witt taught me is an appreciation of story structure.

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Image: Marsel Minga
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

How Moral is your Story?

Aristotle's statueAt the core of most memorable stories lies a theme with a strong ethical or moral premise.

In a very real sense, a story is about proving the theme by tracking the conflict that ensues between the hero and his nemesis, both of whom represent opposing values. In simple terms, good guys finish first, or last, depending on the outcome of that conflict.

But does this then mean that some stories are not ethical or moral? Is the nemesis’ winning of the fight, proof that unethical and immoral behaviour can triumph?

Biblical tales, for example, are clearly moral – Noah, Cleopatra, The Ten Commandments. As are modern stories, such as Braveheart, The Firm, Gladiator, Oblivion, Edge of Tomorrow, and countless others. These tales have at their core a moral premise that states that if the hero does the right thing, he will eventually achieve the goal, carry the day, save the world, even if it sometimes means that he has to sacrifice himself to do it.

But what about less obvious examples? Seven? Fight Club? Inception? Oceans 11,12,13? in what sense do these stories espouse ethical or moral values?

This bothered me quite a bit because, deep down, I felt that all great stories promote the best in us rather than the worst. Yet, something rang true about these latter stories. I felt a resonance and verisimilitude in them that I normally associated with great tales.

Then, during one of my classes on story-telling, it struck me: Most stories are indeed moral and ethical, with one proviso: In some, the moral or ethical judgment falls outside the world of the story itself — it is made by an audience or reader based on received cultural, social, and religious values.

Stories in which the villain gets away with it, spreading death and mayhem in his wake, may appear to show that malice, slyness, and cold-blooded determination lead to victory, but few of us would applaud his actions.

A horror story, in which, let’s say, demons succeed in taking over the world, is not necessarily a celebration of evil overcoming good. Rather, it is a warning: If the hero fails to stop evil, this is the result – a horrific world overrun by demons.

The characters within such a story may even celebrate this fact, but audiences, as a whole, won’t, since they bring their own moral and ethical systems to bare upon the tale.

Paradoxically, then, good will always rise above evil even when it seems defeated.

Summary

Most stories invoke an ethical and moral foundation, even those that ostensibly seem not to.

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Image: Tilemahos Efthimiadis
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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.

Image: Nicolas Raymond
Liecence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

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.

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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Image: Kendrickmartin
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

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.

Excitement vs Tension in Stories

Character follows arrows

Choise = Tension

Do you want to keep your readers or audience glued to your story? Try this: In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers urges us to keep ramping up the tension of our tales. The tension he is referring to here is different from shoot-outs and car chases – that’s chiefly excitement through action, not tension.

True tension is coiled up inside agonising moral choices: Which one of her two children does a mother sacrifice to save the other — Sophie’s Choice. Does the father in Mast lower the drawbridge to prevent the train from falling into the river, or does he leave it up and avoid crushing his son who has fallen into the lifting mechanism of the bridge?

Not all choices have to be world changing. They can be ostensibly small, as long as they are significant for the characters who make them. In Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins keeps the inquisitive Emma Thompson from seeing the title of the book he is reading. It’s a small action in the scene, but the tension in her wanting to know is palpable.

Higher stakes need higher sacrifices to resolve them. Whether the stakes are world domination as in a James Bond movie, or merely the control of your home, they are still high for the affected characters. If your characters don’t have everything to lose, ratchet up the stakes and keep doing so as the story progresses to keep the tension high.

In A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise is trying a big case which will send his client to prison for a long time, if he loses. But later in the story, the stakes rise even more. If Cruise gambles on turning the tables on the Jack Nicholson character, and fails, not only will he lose the case, it will cost him his Navy legal career. For a man living in the shadow of his father, the previous U.S. Attorney General, the stakes are high indeed.

In peppering your story with tension, ask yourself the following questions: What are the stakes for my hero and how can I raise them? What is the moral choice she faces, and what does she stand to lose if she makes the wrong one? Correctly structuring the tension in your story will make for a more gripping tale.

Summary

Keep your hero on the tension tightrope by confronting her with difficult moral choices.

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Image: Dan Moyle
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

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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Image: Björn Rixman
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode