Tag Archives: novelist

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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To be or not to be a writer?

This story explores the torments faced by a writer.
This story explores the torments faced by a writer whose talent has seemingly dried up.

So, you want to be a writer, you say? Really? In this age of shrinking readership? A time when video games, a thrill-a-second movies and digital media are stealing the public’s attention away from reading? There’s no money in it, you’re told – except for a fortunate few. Go get a real job. 

The truth, however, is that the world needs writers. Without well told stories the world would lack conscience. It could not fully articulate its dreams. It could not vividly weigh one possible future against another and articulate a moral message.

Writing is, by its very nature, exposes, explores, evaluates. But it also entertains. 

Films do indeed relate meaningful stories, but they need screenwriters to do so. Games, too, need writers to create the game worlds their characters inhabit. Art and music can indeed critique and inspire society, but its appreciation and significance is often communicated through words, after the fact.

“A writer is someone who keeps on writing despite the odds.”

In their purest form, stories that first exist as novels, novellas and the like, being able to directly explore a character’s mind from the inside out, uniquely capture the debate around a theme, a moral system. They trace the consequences of character action in a way that is difficult to achieve elsewhere. So much so, that they often inspire other forms.

We could sit here all day debating the strengths and weaknesses of our craft in our contemporary world, but it wouldn’t really matter. Because ultimately, true writers are stubborn, willful, and imbued with a sense of purpose that can’t be shaken off. 

Writers keep on writing because they can’t imagine doing anything else.

Summary

Writers consider their labours more as as a calling than a mere job.

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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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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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How to Establish Dramatic Context in Stories


A biblical dramatic context is established in Legion.

During my classes on story, I often talk about dramatic context, about the multiple layers that go into the crafting of a tale.

The inciting incident, turning points, pinches, and midpoint, are narrative units that help the writer to formulate, position and strengthen narrative incidents by locating them within a specific dramatic context—within the beginning, middle, and end; each unit has a specific function within each dramatic context. 

Syd Field reminds us that another way to think of the dramatic context is in terms of its purpose: The purpose of the beginning is to set up the story, the middle is to create confrontation and complication, and the end, to bring about a resolution. But here’s the useful part: Each context can be formulated in terms of a specific question to guide the writer in creating scenes that, in effect, answer this question.

“The dramatic context organises story events by posing them as act-specific answers to act-specific questions.”

In the movie Legion, Archangel Michael disobeys God’s command to wreak vengeance on Man for his perpetual disobedience. Instead, Michael cuts off his wings, making himself human, and appoints himself protector of a waitress at a remote dinner, Charlie, and her unborn child, who, he declares, is mankind’s last hope. In choosing this path, Michael pits himself against the hordes of horrific angels led by Archangel Gabriel who have come down to earth to kill the unborn child. This causes Michael to sacrifice himself for his cause, a sacrifice, which, ironically, leads God to restore Michael to his former self, intact with wings and angelic powers. Michael then defeats Gabriel and saves the child, and by implication, mankind.

The film’s setup asks and answers the question: What is the purpose of the strange happenings occurring around the remote diner? The confrontation (middle), asks and answers the question: will Archangel Michael and his motley crew prevail against the hordes? The resolution (end) asks and answers the question: having beaten the horrific hordes, will Michael overcome the final obstacle by defeating Gabriel, thus saving the child and the world? Writing scenes that collectively pose and answer these questions provides a road map to your story which helps to keep it on track.

Summary

The dramatic context defines the kind of incidents that occur at the beginning, middle, and end of your story. Each can be formulated in terms of a question.

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How to write gripping scenes

Hitchcock is a master of using gripping scenes to hold audiences captive.

IN a recent lecture on storytelling I was asked about how to write gripping scenes.

I find it helpful to organise the functions of scenes into separate layers. On one level a scene must showcase the hero’s actions such as a response to some challenge aimed against him. Actions fuel the so-called outer journey of the story—the plot.

But on an underlying level a scene ought to contribute to the hero’s inner journey. In other words, show how action arises from the values, beliefs, and background of the hero.

These layers make up a single dramatic unit—action and its motivation. But there is something else the writer can do in a scene to make it even more effective. The writer can offer the reader or audience more information than is available to the hero.

“One way to write gripping scenes is to reveal something dangerous your protagonist is unaware of.”

Suspense is ramped up if the hero is deprived of information available to the audience or readers. If the audience is aware that his wife is cheating on him with his best friend, or that there is a bomb in his car, or that his boss is planning to fire him, it generates tension which is partly dissipated only when the hero learns of this himself.

Hitchcock is a master of this technique. His films are studies of how to generate suspense by revealing to audiences things that the protagonist has yet to realise.

In my science fiction thriller, The Level, the protagonist, a man suffering from amnesia who is trying to escape from a derelict asylum, is unaware that he is being stalked by someone brandishing a meat clever, a man who bares him a grudge for some past offense. But the reader is, and this generates additional suspense for the protagonist with whom the reader identifies.

Not all scenes are candidates for this sort of treatment. Strategically chosen, however, this technique significantly ramps up tension that keeps readers and audiences engrossed.

Summary

Write gripping scenes by presenting well-motivated action. When appropriate, sprinkle such action with suspense.

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How to structure emotion in stories

Structuring emotion in Othello.
The structure emotion in Othello.

This article explores how to structure emotion in stories.

I recently talked about how to avoid interrupting the creative impulse resulting from excessive preparation of a novel or screenplay. (To view, click here).

I suggested that for some writers knowing the protagonist’s obsessive desires is enough to get us writing.

Here is Lajos Egri on the subject:

Egri states that it isn’t enough to identify a desire in the protagonist. We need to uncover its underlying causes too: Is Othello’s action driven by jealousy? If so, we need to know that before jealousy there is suspicion; before suspicion there is antagonism—a primary motivator of hate; before antagonism there is disappointment.

“Learn how to structure emotion in stories as a precursor to writing success.”

Identifying the underlying emotions that drive our characters will help us propel them through the story. Strong ambition, for example, implies the need for fame, wealth, power. But all of these might stem from a suppressed but potent sense of insecurity. In constructing that particular sort of character, then, the writer knows that she has to include scenes which explore these emotions.

In my YA novel, The Land Below, Nugget’s hatred for Paulie, the story’s protagonist, arises from jealousy. Anthea, the girl he loves, seems to like Paulie, a mere labourer, more than him. Being a Senator’s son, Nugget believes he is the superior choice. Her preference for Paulie, undermines his fragile confidence in himself. 

Additionally, he fears that his failure to procure Anthea will diminish him in the eyes of his father, whose success is difficult to emulate. Coming up with a plan to defeat Paulie, therefore, stems from his jealousy, which in turn, springs from his insecurity.

In brief, then, exploring the chain of emotions that results in a character’s obsessive desire, is a useful spur to the writing process.

Summary

To properly structure emotion first understand the chain of emotions that lie behind your protagonist’s desire to achieve some tangible goal.

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Inner and outer motivation in stories

Sarah Connor: Inner and outer motivation in The Terminator.
Sarah Connor: Inner and outer motivation in The Terminator.

What is the difference between inner and outer motivation? Merriam-Webster defines motivation as:

1a: the act or process of motivating. b: the condition of being motivated.

2: a motivating force, stimulus, or influenceINCENTIVE, DRIVE.

Typically, the hero’s inner motivation springs from his or her mental life – values, needs, background. These elements, in turn, guide the physical actions that arise in response to some outer challenge or opportunity, in other words, the outer motivation.

Importantly, it is the outer goal that first catches a reader’s or audience’s attention, ordering the events of the story in a visceral way—as in a story about a man who uses his superpowers to try and save the world. Any inner persuasion lies beneath the surface of the tale and is revealed as the story progresses. The outer motivation, then, is the initial cause that starts the hero down a certain path.

Inner motivation, however, is important because it helps to keep the hero’s physical actions to that path. Together, outer and inner motivation form an integrated unit – the description of the event-driven action and its justification.

“The combination of inner and outer motivation serves to explain character action reaching for an external goal.”

The Terminator, for example, is about a waitress who wants to prevent a time-traveling cyborg from murdering her. That is her outer goal. But her ability to do so needs to be grounded in her traits of resilience and determination.

Ghostbusters is about a fired university researcher, and his team, who wants to make cash by ridding clients of ghosts. Acumen in the paranormal field and the need to survive in a harsh real-world environment outside the university result in the creation of a ghost-busting business.

In Breaking Bad Walter White’s desire to provide for his family in light of his seemingly fatal illness, drives him to cook meth. But as the story progresses we realise that he is increasingly propelled by a desire to regain the power and reputation he lost when he sold his share of his company years previously, for a pittance. In one telling moment of hubris, he demands of a dangerous drug distributor, “Say my name!” 

The hero’s inner and outer motivation, respectively, then, can be understood as his physical pursuit of the goal, guided by the reasons that drive him.

Summary

Inner and outer motivation explain why the hero physically responds to some external challenge or opportunity in the way that he or she does.

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The evolution of story

Inception is an example of a closed multiform narrative that points to the evolution of story.
Inception is an example of a closed multiform narrative that points to the evolution of story.

In life as in culture evolution is inevitable.

In his book The Screenwriter’s Workbook screenwriting guru Syd Field wrote this about the screenplay: […] I think we’re in the middle of a screenwriting revolution, a time where screenwriters are pushing the form in new directions.” 

My PhD thesis, Multiform and Multistrand Narrative Structures in Hollywood Cinema, traces the impact of digital media on the story-telling form. I suggest that since stories are structured to reflect our experiences their form is likely to change when our experience of the world changes. 

The increasing non-linearity of life, reflected in the web environment in which we spend so much time, must influence our understanding of action – even of time and space. 

Context, and our interpretation of it, which rests on our understanding of how time and space structures experience, has to shift under such pervasive and persistent pressure.

“As we evolve so must the stories we tell. Nothing reflects this evolution as much as the change in structure—from linear into non-linear story telling.”

This may explain the popularity of films such as The English Patient, Cold Mountain, 2046, Pulp Fiction, Memento, Donnie Darko, Inception, and many others.

These films muddle our understanding of linearity, of cause and effect. They rearrange past, present and future, making the status of what is real problematic. The idea is to reflect, at the level of structure, the bewildering complexity and multiplicity of contemporary life.

The danger in tinkering with the traditional form defined by Aristotle as a narrative that has a beginning, middle and end, however, is that the emotional impact on the reader is lessened. Stories that fail to evoke strong emotions through character action and consequence fall flat. Inception works as a film because it innovates form while placing the characters in life-threatening situations within the story.

Authors and screenwriters who choose to use evolving, non-linear forms, then, ought to ensure that their characters continue to evoke powerful emotion such as passion, sadness, joy, disdain—the strength of traditional story-telling. 

An evolving form and structure, then, should never dazzle us at the cost of lessening the emotional impact of our characters. Not if we want our audiences and readers to care about them.

Summary

The evolution of story form should not get in the way of characters who engage readers and audiences through emotion.

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Understanding Layered Conflict in Stories

Fight Club contains many examples of layered conflict.
Fight Club contains many examples of layered conflict.

Conflict, especially layered conflict, is the driving force behind every story. It supports narrative cause and effect and provides fuel for the tale. Conflict arises from forces that oppose each other and operates on multiple levels. Here are three types of conflict: external, internal, and mixed.

External conflict is typically represented through protagonist/antagonist interaction, but it can also take the form of environmental opposition such as a threat presented by a volcano, or a cyclone. 

Internal conflict pits the protagonist against himself, in effect, turning him into the story’s antagonist — as in Fight Club where the conflict is between the character’s wishes, goals and desires, and between defining traits). 

Mixed conflict is the most common form. Here the protagonist is confronted by a mixture of inner and outer obstacles. 

One of my favourite films, The Matrix, is a great example of how conflict plays out across the layers. At an internal level, the protagonist, Neo experiences conflict between his belief that his current existence is real, and his growing conviction that the world as he knows it is an illusion. It is only when he comes to accept that he is The One that he is able to resolve his inner conflict and defeat the antagonist, agent Smith, and the machines, which have enslaved humanity. Neo’s struggle to attain the story goal, then, is pitted against a multilayered conflict.

Summary

Layered conflict is the fuel that powers your story. The layers can be described as external, internal, and mixed.

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