Writing advice is not that hard to find, in fact it’s everywhere. Some of it is very good, some of it not so much. The challenge is to sift through it until you separate the chaff from the wheat.
Princeton University’s Joyce Carol Oates, who teaches Creative Writing and is a multi-award winning novelist, does offer us some good general advice:
1. Write your heart out. 2. The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE. 3. You are writing for your contemporaries – not for posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become posterity. 4. Keep in mind Oscar Wild: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.” 5. When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun. (This is Raymond Chandler’s advice.) 6. Unless you are experimenting with form – gnarled, snarled & obscure – stick to the accepted format. 7. Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless. 8. Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader – or any reader. He/she might exist – but is reading someone else. 9. Read, observe, listen intently! – as if your life depended upon it. 10. Write your heart out. (Again).
There you have it. Good advice to guide your writing. Take the time to ponder upon it.
Study the suggestions of accomplished writers to glean good writing advice from their thoughts, statements and works.
One way to get to know your characters is to have them reveal their secrets to you. Place yourself in each character’s shoes and try to have them talk through you—as if you were talking to a psychologist or a priest in a confessional.
In the chapter on The Secret Lives of Characters (The Dramatic Writer’s Companion, Will Dunne) we are told that, “Characters with secrets have an objective (to conceal), a problem (the risk of exposure), and a motivation (enough at stake to require privacy).” That’s quite a truckload of treasure to help us enrich our stories.
Delve into your character and plot by having the character confess his or her secret, using the format offered below. What does the secret suggest about the character’s values? His or her psychological, sociological and physiological status? Next, write down ten actions the character might undertake to keep this secret hidden from the world.
Example: “I’ve got a secret about something I did in the past. I am Claudius in Hamlet. I killed Hamlet’s father, the king, so I could marry his wife and assume the throne of Denmark.”
This admission cuts to the heart of the character. It is easy to imagine why Claudius would behave in this way, given the gravity of his secret. His secret not only reveals his lack of values — his desire for power that has made him a murderer — it also explains his present and future actions: He fears disgrace and retribution if he’s found out. Knowing that Hamlet suspects him of the murder of his father, he tries to exile him and plots his death. This is how secrets turn actions into plot.
“Secrets are prodigious story generators.”
Example: In Primal Fear, defense attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is representing altar boy Aaron Stamper (Edward Norton) who is charged with murder. Aaron, who purportedly suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID), claims his alter-ego “Roy” is responsible.
Aaron’s secret? “My name is Aaron Stamper and I don’t have DID! I am a sociopath and an exceptionally good actor.”
This secret is so central to the story that keeping it hidden drives the entire tale. The challenge is to keep the audience guessing.
Secrets, then, drive stories – use them to shape character and generate plot.
What is your character’s secret? Write down ten actions and their consequences that flow from it.
Sometimes writers try to solicit audience participation by injecting more action into their stories. They erroneously add a fight scene here or a chase scene there in the belief that it will capture the audience through sheer pace alone. They fail to realise that action works best only if it is built upon the foundation of rising stakes, anticipation, suspense.
Firstly, the audience has to care about the character whose life is placed in peril. This means the character has to be finely crafted to evoke sympathy. Crafting sympathetic characters in a feature film or novel is crucial if we are to care about the story at all. I have written about this topic extensively on this site.
At the level of plot, the story benefits through setbacks that delay the hero’s achieving the story goal. Like the drawing back of an arrow, a setback allows the shaft to travel all the faster when released. The setbacks take several forms – barriers and reversals being the most common.
Think about the number of barriers that Sam Gerard encounters in trying to find Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. Each ramps up the tension by allowing Kimble to stay one step ahead and increases our involvement in the story.
“Audience participation is essential if your story is to succeed. Work at learning the craft until it is mastered.”
How about the reversal in Edge of Tomorrow when Major William Cage meets with General Brigham who is in charge of operations?
The General wants Cage to film the Allied assault against the enemy for purposes of morale. Cage wants no part of it. When Cage tries to blackmail Brigham to force him to reconsider his decision, he ends up being stripped of his rank and sent to the front as a lowly private instead. It is a reversal that sets up the entire story.
In my science fiction novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, is confronted with a devastating choice in trying to rescue the woman he loves. He can save her from certain death, but only if he stays away from her forever. It is a reversal in expectation that increases our involvement in the story.
Placing your hero in a situation of undeserved misfortune, then tightening the screws, is one technique that is bound to help increase audience participation in your stories
A sympathetic hero, in a feature film or novel, who encounters obstacles and reversals in trying to achieve his goal, increases audience participation in the story.
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The presence of epiphany in the character arc tells us that the protagonist has achieved a high level of moral, spiritual and emotional self-awareness. This allows him to prevail against the antagonist.
I want to say a little more about the moment that finally proves that the hero has arrived at his zenith.
Let’s start by restating that the protagonist initiates action as a response to some physical conflict or threat at the level of plot. Typically, he receives a challenge which he is forced to tackle head-on. But this requires that he first make a decision of how to proceed.
So: 1. A challenge is issued by the antagonist. 2. The protagonist makes a decision of how to respond. 3. The protagonist takes action based on that decision. 4. The antagonist responds, further thwarting the protagonist. 5. The protagonist initiates more action to try and achieve the goal by other means.
“The realisation of a buried wound or hidden flaw allows the protagonist to face the outer challenge with increased honesty and clarity. Newfound power is initiated through the presence of epiphany.”
But because the protagonist lacks the emotional, moral and spiritual maturity for the greater part of the story, he fails to make the right decisions, until his suffering, resulting from his string of defeats, causes him to learn from his mistakes.
The quality of the protagonist’s decisions, therefore, directly impacts the quality of his actions. He can only achieve victory when he has fully achieved maturity—usually by the end of the story. This maturity is indicated through the moment of epiphany—the recognition of some deeply buried truth that has kept him down all this while.
In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, who is his own antagonist, breaks his decades-old isolation when he faces the truth about his childhood and forgives himself his one great mistake that led to the death of his beloved wife. It is this realisation, based on painstaking emotional, spiritual and moral maturation, that finally allows him to move forward with what remains of his life.
Exercise: Study the climax in something you’ve written. Is your protagonist’s victory or defeat predicated on his recognition (or lack of it) of a buried wound that has hamstrung him all along? If not, try weaving it into your story from the get-go.
The presence of epiphany marks the last stage of the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery.
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We’ve all heard that dialogue should not be direct – that it should hint at the inner life, the emotions, attitudes, grudges, and wounds beneath the surface layer of speech, rather than merely convey information. But how do we achieve this in our writing?
In a previous article I talked about ‘dactions’ – that’s my word for combining language with gestures and actions to enhance meaning. Here is an example taken from Deborah Harverson’s chapter in Crafting Dynamic Dialogue (Writer’s Digest Books):
“Aren’t you thoughtful?” She took the rose he’d handed her and walked to the sink where she kept her vase. Two other roses rested in it, one from the week before, wilting slightly. Both were peach, matching the tight bud in her hand. He loved to give her flowers but dismissed red roses as cliché. “I stopped by Sue’s apartment today,” she said, turning on the water, her back to him. “She had a rose on her kitchen table.” She reached forward, past the running water, past the vase, to the switch on the wall. Resting her finger on it, she turned and smiled sweetly at him. He’d stopped in the doorway, one glove off, the other dangling from his fingers. He wasn’t tugging on it anymore. “A peach rose in a tall vase,” she said, “right there next to her violin.” She poked the bud’s stem into the garbage disposal then flicked the button. The grinder roared as it sucked the flower down, flecks of peach petal flicking free, but he heard her clearly: “You told me you hate musicians.”
The inner life is key
Halverson notes that this is a deeply wounded woman whose pain manifests through quiet statements, the last one ‘making you cringe from the intensity of its delivery.’
The rose becomes the nexus for all sorts of emotions—love, betrayal, hurt. It is transformed into a symbol of infidelity. Rather than her directly accusing the man of infidelity through yelling and dish-throwing, she shreds the rose to convey her pain and anger.
One would do well to remember this advice. Subtext, combined with small, telling actions reveals the inner life of a character, delivers more punch, without melodrama or direct violence. Anger passes; a calculated response suggests an unsettling resolve that may be far more damaging and permanent.
Exercise: Locate a passage in your own work where two or more people are at loggerheads. Have one character respond in a way that suggests resolve rather than rage.
Combining gestures with a calm response to a situation can paradoxically generate stronger emotions that reveal the inner life of the characters.
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Turning points in stories are events that twist the narrative in unexpected ways.
There are two types—major turning points that occur towards the end of the first and second acts, and a medley of minor ones that twist dramatic beats to create a zig-zagging effect within an act.
Here is a list of the sort of twists and turns that can occur in the narrative. Determining what sort they are depends on how strongly they turn the plot:
1. An unexpected problem arises which causes the hero to approach his goal from a different direction. 2. An important resource is lost. 3. A sidekick or friend swaps sides. 4. A lie is revealed. 5. A past mistake resurfaces to complicate matters. 6. The trust in a friend is lost. 7. An alternative plan emerges to rival the existing one. 8. The hero loses faith in his ability to achieve the goal.
“Turning the story through the use of surprise keeps the tale unpredictable and the audience engaged.”
Again, the beat type is determined by where it occurs in the narrative and how strong it is—how severely it causes a change in the original plan (such as an unexpected problem derailing the hero’s path to the goal). Story-altering beats are known as turning points.
In The Matrix, for example, Neo’s realisation that his life has been nothing more than a simulation, is a major turning point that spins the story into the second act.
A twist such as the hero losing faith in his ability to achieve his goal, however, represents a temporary pause in his journey. It does not reach the level of a turning point, but is a good candidate for a mid-point, where, typically, the hero questions his strength and ability to pursue the goal.
Other twists, such as a lie being revealed, or a sidekick changing sides, represent an ajustement to the path, but do not necessarily constitute a derailment.
Exercise: In a story you have written—is the event at the end of the first or second act strong enough to cause the next act? Do the smaller dramatic beats within your acts contain elements of surprise?
Turning the flow of your narrative helps to keep your readers and audiences engaged in your story.
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.
I have often talked about the need to align your hero’s actions against the character arc if a story is to be believable. I emphasised that the quality of a character’s actions depends on that character’s state of moral, spiritual, and psychological development. The hero can not defeat the antagonist until he has achieved maturity, often through pain and suffering.
But where and how does the writer incorporate this alignment?
The short answer is that the alignment should be checked at the pivotal points in the story – the introduction to the ordinary world, the inciting incident, the first turning point, the midpoint, the second turning point, the climax, and the resolution.
Indeed, the introduction to the ordinary world and the resolution present the sharpest points of contrast in the hero’s growth, being at the polar ends of his character arc. They help to set the scale for calibrating his growth.
It is now easier to align actions and events on a scale of lesser or greater effectiveness. The second turning point, for example, contains some growth in wisdom, certainly more than at the first turning point, but less so than at the climax, which delivers the maximum growth – if the hero is to defeat the antagonist.
“Character actions feel authentic when they arise as a result of the state of moral and technical knowledge at specific points along the character’s arc.”
In Edge of Tomorrow, Cage, struggles to defeat an alien enemy that can see into the future. Cage is killed, but his reality is reset, affording him an opportunity to try again. But to no avail. He keeps getting things wrong. He keeps dying. It is only when he lets go of his fear of losing the woman he loves and decides to sacrifice himself, that he is able to blindside the enemy. That moment is the climax of the story and represents Cage’s full maturation. His actions have been perfectly aligned to his character arc.
In my own novel, The Level, the protagonist perceives the truth about his inability to escape his environment only when he embraces his identity and uses it to defeat the antagonist. His previous actions have been ineffective largely because of his lack of self-awareness.
In both cases actions that lead to progress only occur when the deeper truth about a character’s inner life is exposed and understood.
Calibrate character actions along the pivotal points in your story to keep them in sync.
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.
I have written at some length about the importance of well rounded characters since they are foundational to storytelling. Today I want to focus on a word that points to an essential aspect of character dynamics—status.
Thinking about well rounded characters and their interaction in terms of a social, cultural, economic and physical dynamic is helpful because it often resolves into a conflict predicated upon differences in status.
In this sense the status of a character, relative to others, directs his response to a threat or bounty. It is a powerful generator of subtext—a boon to any story.
Status is in itself neither good nor bad, but it does mean that the character exhibiting it is the prime mover in a scene. The status-laden character’s desire for a specific goal drives the beats in a scene. It also means that this character has the most to lose if his status is diminished and will therefore fight to keep it.
“Well rounded characters exhibit behaviour that reflects their status.”
The list could be extended almost indefinitely, but you get the idea. The point is that power is communicated through a variety of physical and psychological signals expressed in carefully chosen words and actions. These signals can be exhibited by villains and heroes alike. Be sure to fully utilise them in your scenes as your characters vie for dominance or survival.
Exercise: Select several scenes you have written. Can you identify the status of each character? How does the power dynamic between them shape their interaction? How is this communicated to the reader?
Well rounded characters lie at the foundation of impactful writing. The status of each helps to determine the power dynamic between them.