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Superfluous Words – strike them from a sentence

Superfluous words—one of William Strunk’s best remembered admonitions.
Omit superfluous words—one of William Strunk’s best remembered admonitions.

In his book, Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. admonishes us to strike superfluous words from our writing. Our narratives will be more polished and energetic for it.


Here are some examples from his book:

  • The question as to whether / whether
  • There is no doubt but that / doubtless
  • In a hasty manner / hastily
  • He is a man who / who
  • His brother, who is a member of the same firm / His brother, a member of the same firm

“Superfluous words weigh down sentences, lessening their import and impact.“

I often castigate students for writing paragraph-long sentences that confuse the reader. I suggest that the remedy is to break up long sentences into shorter ones that build through logical progression and culminate in a telling conclusion. Sometimes, however, the reverse is true. A single, well-styled sentence can deliver more. Here’s another example from William Strunk:

“Macbeth was very ambitious. This led him to wish to become king of Scotland. The witches told him that this wish of his would come true. The king of Scotland at this time was Duncan. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth murdered Duncan. He was thus enabled to succeed Duncan as king.”

(Is reduced to:

Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth achieved his ambition and realized the prediction of the witches by murdering Duncan and becoming king of Scotland.

Brevity is even more important in screenplays, where a lean, tight style adds to a sense of pace—a requirement in many film genres.

Consider replacing wordy, action-block descriptions with punchier ones:

  • Blake’s hand flashes like lightning to the table, grabbing the gun from it and pointing it at Jake in one breathtaking movement. / Blake snatches the gun from the table and points it at Jack.
  • Matthew slows his pace down to jogging speed. / Matthew slows to a jog.
  • Bethany rushes up to the wall containing the largest window in the room and climbs on the sill. / Bethany rushes up to the largest window and climbs on the sill.

”Brevity leads to precision. Precision leads to a heightened reading experience.”

Do not repeat redundant information in a scene’s action block:

  • Burlap, now fully transformed into a werewolf, stomps into the room, thick muscles hiding under dark fur, fangs bared, great thighs ready to spring. / We already know what a werewolf looks like. Rather write: Bulap, now a warewolf, stomps into the room, ready to spring.

Although this cut-to the-bone brevity is less of a requirement in a novel than in a screenplay, all stories benefit through brevity and precision. 

Summary

Strike superfluous words from your sentences to make your stories leaner and punchier.

If not story formula, then what?

Story formula in Arrow
Series such as Arrow follow a tight story formula that blunts any sense of originality.

The increased access to countless films and television series available through services such as Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Apple, as well as the flood of audio books and kindle novels, has meant that we have been exposed to a repetitive story formula inherent in some genres. This has lead to predictability and boredom.

And yet, every great story does indeed contain a pattern, without which the story might degenerate into a formless puddle. So, how does one adhere to some sort of structure, without making such a structure predictable and stifling?

Here’s the reference I keep at the back of my mind when I want to avoid adhering a formula that ties my writing to a specific number of beats. I start writing about events concerning a hero who …

finds himself in a position of undeserved misfortune and finally decides to take action to fix the situation. But the harder he tries, the more he becomes entangled in a web of mounting stakes and deepening dilemmas, each, more dangerous and difficult than the last. This forces him to dive deep within himself for a better solution. In doing so, he discovers, at the last minute, a deep truth about himself which allows him to achieve his goal by tackling past misconceptions, moral flaws, and misguided plans.

“One way to avoid rigidity is to replace a story formula with a pattern. A pattern suggests an overall narrative shape that allows for more freedom. A formula tends towards predictable beats that suck the freshness out of a story.”

The interesting thing about this description of a story is that it has a beginning, middle and end, but avoids an overburdening and familiar structure that might make the beats overtly predictable. It also addresses both the outer and inner journeys through the character’s developmental arc. It does not sketch in any great detail where the turning points should occur—except in the most general way. This allows wiggle room for events to fall outside expected beats.

It also steers the outer journey through via the inner journey—through the decisions our Hero makes at pivotal moments in his growth, and hints at a universal truth: That the only way the Hero can achieve the outer goal is by attaining a moment of epiphany, a hitherto hidden truth about himself, that arises from the wisdom that comes from having faced near defeat.

Summary

A story formula is reductive and rigid. A story pattern suggests a general narrative shape that grants enough wriggle room to preserve variation.

Spiritual Growth and the Age of a Character

Spiritual growth in Seven Years in Tibet
Spiritual growth in Seven Years in Tibet

How does spiritual growth relate to the age of a character?

In Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger points out that older characters in stories experience a deepening engagement with values they might not have entertained during their younger years—values relating to spiritual growth.


Forty and Beyond

Maturity often brings with it a tension between the spiritual and the material in our own lives. Stories about evolving characters, therefore, tend to explore issues that have become more pressing because of the wisdom individuals have earned through experience.

Having achieved successful careers, sometimes at the expense of the inner life, some are ready to shift focus from material pursuits to a more spiritual approach, concentrating on such values as integrity, social conscience and enduring relationships. 

”Spiritual growth in a character often, although not always, goes hand-in-hand with a growing maturity associated with age. The stories we write containing such characters should reflect this possibility.”

Some characters even factor in self-sacrifice for the greater good as a viable course of action. Films such as Seven Years in Tibet, Ghandi, Erin Brokovich, and Norma Rae touch on this directly.

The point is that as we mature so does the focus of our attention—from the visceral pleasures granted by material success to the more selfless rewards of value-driven action: from receiving to giving, from competing to sharing, from holding grudges to forgiving. The value system of the characters we write, therefore, ought to reflect this age-related shift. Stories containing such characters will resonate with more mature audiences who recognise these values in themselves.

Summary

Stories about maturing characters explore themes that weigh up spiritual growth over material gain.

Building Characters in Seven Steps

Building characters in The Godfather
Building characters in The Godfather

In his book, The Anatomy of Story, John Truby lays out seven steps to building characters:



The seven steps chiefly apply to the protagonist of the story since the protagonist is the vehicle through which the story is channeled. Truby illustrates these steps through an adroit analysis of several films. Here, we look at his break-down of The Godfather, taken directly from his book, although the pattern applies to any well-written story.

  1. Weakness and need
  2. Desire
  3. Opponent 
  4. Plan
  5. Battle
  6. Self-revelation
  7. New equilibrium

Hero: Michael Corleone.

Weaknesses: Michael is young, inexperienced, untested, and overconfident.

Psychological Need: Michael must overcome his sense of superiority and self-righteousness.

Moral Need: He needs to avoid becoming ruthless like the other Mafia bosses while still protecting his family.


“The path to building characters that are effective is one that tracks the protagonist’s journey from weakness and need to a new equilibrium, forged through the crucible of battle.“

Problem: Rival gang members shoot Michael’s father, the head of the family.

Desire: He wants to take revenge on the men who shot his father and thereby protect his family.

Opponent: Michael’s first opponent is Sollozzo. However, his true opponent is the more powerful Barzini, who is the hidden power behind Sollozzo and wants to bring the entire Corleone family down. Michael and Barzini compete over the survival of the Corleone family and who will control crime in New York.

“A strong opponent is someone who finds and exploits the protagonist’s weakness throughout the story.”

Plan: Michael’s first plan is to kill Sollozzo and his protector, the police captain. His second plan is to kill the heads of the other families in a single strike.

Battle: The final battle is a crosscut between Michael’s appearance at his nephew’s baptism and the killing of the heads of the five Mafia families. At the baptism, Michael says that he believes in God. Clemenza fires a shotgun into some men getting off an elevator. Moe Green is shot in the eye. Michael, following the liturgy of the baptism, renounces Satan. Another gunman shoots one of the heads of the families in a revolving door. Barzini is shot. Tom sends Tessio off to be murdered. Michael has Carlo strangled.

Psychological Self-Revelation: There is none. Michael still believes that his sense of superiority and self-righteousness is justified.

Moral Self-Revelation: There is none. Michael has become a ruthless killer. The writers use an advanced story structure technique by giving the moral self-revelation to the hero’s wife, Kay, who sees what he has become as the door slams in her face.

New Equilibrium: Michael has killed his enemies and “risen” to the position of Godfather. But morally, he has fallen and become the “devil.” This man who once wanted nothing to do with the violence and crime of his family is now its leader and will kill anyone who stands in his way.

Summary
Using a seven-step approach to building characters and story is a great way to mould protagonists who drive the plot forward in an organic and integrated way.

Epiphany and Self-Realisation in Stories

The hero’s epiphany in Casablanca.
The hero’s epiphany in Casablanca.

The epiphany refers to that moment at the end of the character arc where the hero realises a hidden truth about himself. This truth shines a light on a blind spot, flaw or wound, that has hampered progress towards achieving his purpose.


The epiphany is an internal event that impacts two layers of meaning—the psychological and the moral. The psychological allows the flaw to be confronted—a first step in healing oneself. Importantly, the epiphany allows the hero to gain true efficacy in the world and results in his turning the tables on the antagonist through external action.

But whereas the psychological dimension begins the process of healing the hero as an individual, the moral dimension allows the hero to apply the healing to the whole of society—it universalises the story by associating the action with the moral good.

“As a whole, then, the hero’s epiphany is the moment where self-deception is stripped away. The penny drops. The lesson is learnt. It is the culmination of the inner journey of the character.“

It goes hand in hand with the transformation of ‘want’ into ‘need’. Without this transformation the hero is fighting in the dark, ill equipped to fulfill his goal.

In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby (who refers to the moment of epiphany as the moment of self-realisation) provides the following examples of transformation:

“In Casablanca Rick sheds his cynicism, regains his idealism, and sacrifices his love for Ilsa so he can become a freedom fighter.

In Dances with Wolves Dunbar finds a new reason to live and a new way of being a man because of his new wife and his extended Lakota Sioux family. Ironically, the Lakota way of life is almost at an end, so Dunbar’s self-revelation is both positive and negative.

In effect, the hero realizes that he has been wrong, that he has hurt others, and that he must change. He then proves he has changed by taking new moral action.”

Summary

The hero’s epiphany refers to the moment in which the hero recognises his psychological and moral shortcomings and acts to overcome his last crisis and gain his true goal.

Sympathy Versus Empathy in Stories

Sympathy Versus Empathy in The Anatomy of Story
Sympathy Versus Empathy in The Anatomy of Story

In his book, The Anatomy of Story, John Truby examines the distinction between sympathy versus empathy with regard to character likability. He emphasizes that a successful protagonist has to hold readers and audiences captive. A hateful, selfish protagonist is unlikely to do so.

With the proliferation of deeply flawed protagonists in recent years writers have had to use specific techniques to make such characters engaging. Walter White (Breaking Bad), Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Dexter Morgan (Dexter), Carrie Mathison (Homeland), and Joe Goldberg (You), are all iconic examples of how to write characters that audiences can’t get enough of despite their being psychologically or morally damaged.

“Understanding the distinction between sympathy versus empathy in a story character allows you to write damaged or flawed characters that may literally get away with murder.”

But how does this work? What keeps us interested in such deeply flawed characters? John Truby explains that our engagement with them is one of empathy rather than sympathy:

“Make the audience empathize with your hero, not sympathize. Everyone talks about the need to make your hero likable. Having a likable (sympathetic) hero can be valuable because the audience wants the hero to reach his goal. In effect, the audience participates in telling the story. But some of the most powerful heroes in stories are not likable at all. Yet we are still fascinated by them.

KEY POINT: What’s really important is that audiences understand the character but not necessarily like everything he does. [It] is to show the audience the hero’s motive.”

The overall point is that if you show your people why your hero chooses or is forced to act in the way that he does, they will have empathy for him without necessarily approving of his actions. This is a crucial distinction and one that provides an important technique that no writer can be without.

Summary
Sympathy versus empathy highlights the crucial distinction in stories between understanding a character’s motivation and liking it.


Great Character Description in Stories

Character description in As Good As It Gets
Great character description in As Good As It Gets

How do you write a great character description in your screenplay or novel?


Do you include detailed physical attributes and forays into backstory, thinking you’re building a solid foundation that will pay off later? That might be the norm in pulp films and novels, but discerning audiences and readers are impatient with lengthy descriptions that stop the narrative dead in its tracks.

Your characters have to make a strong impression from the get-go. The best way to achieve this is with brevity, precision, insight, and laser-sharp detail.

“Great character description highlights some inner aspect of the character; it does not solely rest on the way a character looks. At the very least, the description hints at a reality beyond the physical.”

Here are some examples of good character description from novels.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (Hayes Barton Press, 2005, originally published 1885). Mama Bekwa Tataba stood watching us—a little jet-black woman. Her elbows stuck out like wings, and a huge white enameled tub occupied the space above her head, somewhat miraculously holding steady while her head moved in quick jerks to the right and left. (p. 38)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (1998). A giant of a man was standing in the doorway. His face was almost completely hidden by a long, shaggy mane of hair and a wild, tangled beard, but you could make out his eyes, glinting like black beetles under all the hair. (p. 46)

Holes by Louis Sachar (2000). They were dripping with sweat, and their faces were so dirty that it took Stanley a moment to notice that one kid was white and the other black. (p. 17)

In all three examples above, the physical description, coupled with simile or metaphor, variously conveys an attitude, demeanour or theme beyond the description itself:

A head miraculously balancing the weight of a tub while moving in quick jerks under that very weight, suggests a skill indicative of classical Indian dance.

Eyes that glinting like black beetles under all the hair lends a sinister edge to the snapshot.

Faces that were so dirty that the race of the owners is not immediately apparent, connotes far more that the denotative description—it plugs into theme, suggesting that tags such as skin colour are superficial and trivial.

Great character description in screenplays

Here are three examples of character description in screenplays:

THE MATRIX (1999) NEO, a man who knows more about living inside a computer than living outside one. [This is a straight-from-the-hip description of the essence of Neo Anderson. It is a sharp and accurate snapshot of who the man is.]

AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997). In the hallway. Well past 50. Unliked, unloved, unsettling. A huge pain in the ass to everyone he’s ever met. [A short, to-the-point summary of the protagonist. Far more powerful than a lengthy physical description about his shortcomings.]

GET OUT (2017) CHRIS WASHINGTON, 26, a handsome African-American man shuts the medicine cabinet. He’s shirtless and naturally athletic. He scrutinizes his reflection with a touch of vanity. [A clichéd, on-the-nose introduction to the character, with the exception of the last sentence, which exposes his narcissism.]

The point is to avoid superfluous physical traits and describe the way a character looks unless it is revealing of personality and plot.

Summary

When writing a character description stick to the essence of the character. Do not describe superfluous physical traits that are coincidental to the story.

Great Plot from Moral Weaknesses

Great Plot out of the moral premise in Tootsie
A great plot out of the moral premise in Tootsie

How do you generate a great plot from the moral weakness of your hero? You tailor-make the story goal to fit your hero’s weakness. Paring these two narrative events elevates your story to one of poetic justice.

One way to tie the character to the goal is to link it to the moral premise of the story. Ask, what does my character learn by pursuing and eventually gaining the goal?

If your character is stingy, he has to learn to be generous (Scrooge). If he is cowardly and narcissistic, he ends up in a situation where he has to save the world (Edge of Tomorrow.)

There is an ironic relationship between the character’s flaw or weakness and the challenge he is presented with because it is this very weakness that needs to be eliminated in order for him to become whole again.

“The point of a great plot is, at least in part, to teach the hero a moral lesson.”

Few films illustrate this better than Tootsie. In the film, Dustin Hoffman plays a man who has little respect for women, treating them poorly. But he is an out-of-work actor who desperately seeks an acting job. Ironically, he lands a part playing a woman by pretending to be a woman—a role he has to continue playing outside the studio. This exposes him to the sort of mistreatment he has subjected women to in the past. Experiencing this behaviour first hand is a lesson that causes him to grow and change. The plot is fitting because it is geared towards fixing the inner failing of the protagonist.

And so it’s should be with every great story. The plot should showcase the hero’s weakness by placing him in a situation that can only be solved by addressing that very weakness in the plot and in himself.


Summary

Behind every great plot is a protagonist who solves the story problem by addressing an inner weakness in his character.

Fabulous Scenes—how to write them

Fabulous scenes in Unforgiven
The end of one of the many fabulous scenes in Unforgiven

So, you have your logline, a short synopsis of your story, and you’re ready to start writing fabulous scenes. But how to do it?

There are several ways to classify scenes—reactive, proactive, turning point scenes, midpoint scenes, the must-have-scene, and so on. In future articles I will be looking at the specific similarities and differences between each type. Here, however, I want to lay out a general strategy for writing great scenes.

The most important things to know off the bat for writing great scenes are:

1. Who is the central character in the scene?

2. What is the character’s goal in the scene?

3. How does the scene advance the plot?

4. What is the emotion generated by the scene?

5. How does the scene reveal character?

The second thing to consider is the method: How do you intend to convey the above? Through dialogue, action, subtext?

“Fabulous scenes are fabulous because they do the simple things right and let the fireworks emerge from that.”

In Unforgiven, a young, bombastic gunslinger who calls himself the Schofield Kid approaches ex-outlaw William Manny at his farm. He wants to recruit Manny to help him kill a couple of cowboys who reportedly cut up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey. Clearly, Manny is not doing well as a pig farmer and needs money to feed himself and his two young children. Manny initially rejects the offer. The scene, which can viewed as the inciting incident, fulfills several of the points raised above:

  1. The focus of the scene is clearly about William Manny who is faced with making a decision.
  2. The goal is to show Manny receiving a ‘job’ offer for which he will receive reward money, and his response to it.
  3. ThIs advances the plot by dangling the possibility of Manny returning to his old ways in order to collect the reward money.
  4. We see Manny as a shadow of the hard-living gunslinger he once was. Instead of lauding his decision not to accept the offer, we are left feeling sorry for him and his poverty-stricken life.
  5. The scene has Manny declare that he is no longer the cursing, hard-drinking killer he once was—that his wife has cured him of his evil ways. There is a sense, however, that Manny yearns for the adventure and freedom of the old days. We sense that he is only fooling himself, and this deepens his character.

The scene uses subtext and the physical demeanour of the characters to juxtapose the flashy, big-talking, Schofield Kid against the seemingly spent pig-farmer. It is a great example of how to use the above-mentioned techniques to write a spectacular scene.

Summary

Fabulous scenes apply an appropriate method for revealing character goals, hinting at hidden emotions, and promoting plot.

Story Theme – What Is It?

Before the Light, and the story theme.
In Before the Light, the story theme is that of humanity having to be protected from itself.

“What is your story theme? What is your story really about?” I ask.
“It’s about a boy who embarks on a journey to find his long-lost sister—,” you answer.

“That’s not what I mean,” I say, interrupting you. “By theme I mean the essence of your story, distilled into a single sentence.”

Without it the tale is rendered rudderless. 

In his book, The Moral Premise, Stanley D Williams explains that the moral premise (substitute the word theme here) is the force that determines the flow and direction of events in a story. He asserts that stories with a strong moral premise do well at the box office. He sites films such as Star Wars and Braveheart as examples. Here, the claim is that understanding the moral premise guides the writer to craft a story that stays on track.

So, what form does the theme take? Williams says it isn’t enough just to state the one side of it.

“The story theme is the compass that allows the writer to navigate through a myriad of narrative outcomes.”

In the novella, Before the Light, for example, one part of the theme might be: Too much knowledge heaped upon an unprepared humanity leads to destruction (followed by the second part), but a well-kept secret leads to survival.

This creates an appropriate springboard for character action, for the story to explore the possible consequences of each possible outcome. The sentient quantum computer, Icarus, for example, has to choose between fulfilling the duty entrusted to it by its human creators, and risk dragging the entire world into a war, or betray the very purpose of its creation.

The story traces the tension between those two irreconcilable outcomes, right up to the moment in the climax when a decision is made—with all its concomitant consequences.

The complete moral premise, or theme, therefore, represents the genetic code for a story and takes the simple form: If X leads to a bad outcome, then MINUS X leads to a good outcome. A fully articulated theme allows us to navigate the terrain between those outcomes using this structure.

Summary

The theme or moral premise, comprises of two parts and can be thought of as the organising force of any story: One part identifies the virtue which leads to victory, while the other identifies its opposite, which leads to defeat. Keeping the theme in mind allows you to craft a story that stays on track.