Tag Archives: writer

A character profile – making characters more compelling.

In Macbeth, the protagonist has a compelling character profile. He is  brave and courageous man but with one damning flaw — overriding ambition.
In Macbeth, the protagonist has a compelling character profile. He is brave and courageous man but with one damning flaw — overriding ambition.

A character profile helps you write compelling characters—the mainstay of any story.

Learning to write fictional characters is a life-long endeavour; it draws on our personal growth as we journey through life, learning from our actions, both good and bad. 

There are, however, specific techniques that we, as writers, may immediately use to improve our craft. One such technique is to deploy a character profile prior to commencing the writing of your character(s).

In this post we examine six such elements: Basic traits, want vs. need, opposing elements, secrets, flaws, and uniqueness.

The character profile check-list:

1. Basic Traits

Fictional characters usually have three or four basic traits that help shape their actions. In the movie, Rocky, for example, the protagonist is a hardworking journeyman boxer whose toughness and relentless determination to take whatever the opponent can throw at him help to propel him to a world heavyweight championship fight.

2. Want vs. Need

What a character wants is not always what he or she needs. In fact, some of the most compelling characters are forged out of this opposition. A want is usually manifested through the pursuit of an outer goal, while a need is often obfuscated by that very goal. Rocky ostensibly wants to go the distance with the heavyweight champion of the world. What he needs, however, is to bolster his self-respect by enduring the punishment the champion throws at him.

3. Opposing Elements

Inner conflict arising out of warring elements makes for more interesting characters. In Unforgiven, William Munny a cold blooded killer in his youth is reformed by his loving wife, now dead, who continues to influence him beyond the grave. In accepting a job to kill the men who cut up the face of a prostitute, Munny repeatedly asserts that his wife has cured him of his evil ways, and he has only agreed to take on the job in an attempt to dispense justice and provide a fresh start for his children from the reward money.

4. Keeping Secrets

Someone with a secret makes for a far more compelling character. Secrets promote suspense, surprise, and enrich the backstory, allowing the writer to craft situations that are inherently more engaging and resonant. In the film, Chinatown, Evelyn Mulwray ‘s dialogue and actions resonate with a terrible secret—that her daughter is also her sister, a result of an act of incest perpetrated by her own father. It is only when Jake Gittes learns of this towards the end of the film that he is able to fully understand the reason for her odd and seemingly deceitful behavior.

“A character profile pin-points the elements that will create the depth, complexity, and verisimilitude in that character.”

5. The Flaw

A character with a flaw seems more human, allowing the writer to play his strengths off against his weaknesses, heightening the inner and outer conflict. In the Shakespearean play, Macbeth, the protagonist is a brave and courageous man who has one damning flaw — overriding ambition. This makes him susceptible to the suggestions of others, especially his wife, that he should be king. This flaw drives the story and ultimately determines Macbeth’s fate — his death.

6. Uniqueness

A unique personality doesn’t have to be bizarre; one or two unique habits or unusual traits are often enough to make a character stand out from the pack. In the novel, The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is a wealthy, mysterious man who throws outlandish parties in the hope of attracting Daisy — the great love of his life — to one of them. The unique trait that distinguishes him from everyone else of his ilk is his gift for wonder, his capacity to stay true to his beloved vision of Daisy.

Summary

A character profile helps us write compelling characters. It helps ensure the action and dialogue stay on track.

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What is a dramatic beat?

The ominous base notes in Jaws, or the discussion about the intimacy of a foot massage both constitute smaller but important beats.
The ominous base notes in Jaws, or the discussion about the intimacy of a foot massage both constitute smaller but important beats in these stories.

A dramatic beat is a small but significant bit of information in a story.

Beats generally take the form of an event or action resulting in a reaction. Although a beat provides additional information, it is not strong enough to turn the story in a different direction.

Consider the example of a protagonist who is about to leave his flat to meet his fiancé at a restaurant only to have his mother arrive unannounced to visit him. He politely informs her that he is late for his date. She leaves, feeling disgruntled.

The unexpected arrival of the mother and her having to leave constitutes a single dramatic beat.

The number of beats in a scene can be as few as one or two in shorter scene, to five or more in a longer ones—though there is no set number. Importantly, the number of beats in an entire story varies from genre to genre. Art cinema and literature typically have fewer beats resulting in a slower rhythm than do mainstream films and novels.

A turning point, by contrast, is new information that is so forceful and, often, surprising, that it turns the story in a new direction. Things can no longer continue as they are.

“Turning points are beefed-up dramatic beats that turn the direction of a story.”

In our above-mentioned example, imagine our protagonist opening the door to have his mother reveal to him that his fiancé has just told her that she’s leaving him for another man. In a love story, that would constitute a turning point – a beat on steroids that changes the direction of the story.

Not all turning points come from outer events. Sometimes a sudden insight about some hitherto hidden truth about a character’s life can turn the story on its head – as in Benjamin Vlahos’ realisation about his true ancestry in The Nostalgia of Time Travel.

Summary

The dramatic beat is a small but significant unit of action and reaction in a scene. Turning points, by contrast, are beefed-up beats that change the direction of the story.

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Dialogue continuity – how to achieve it.

Dialogue continuity in Independence Day.
Dialogue continuity in Independence Day.

Dialogue is such an important part of successful storytelling that it has generated countless of books and courses in how to achieve it.

Today I want to touch upon one aspect of good dialogue – what Dwight V. Swain calls dialogue continuity in his book, Film Scriptwriting – A Practical Manual.

Swain suggests that one of the markers of good dialogue is continuity. That is, each speech, be it short or long, acknowledges the one preceding it in some direct or indirect way. 

There are several ways to achieve this. Below are two of the most common – repetition of a word or phrase, and a question / answer structure:

In Independence Day the President of the United States questions an alien who is speaking through a surrogate:

President: Can there be a peace between us?
Alien: Peace? No peace.
President: What is it you want us to do?
Alien: Die. Die.

Here, the clipped berevity embedded in the question and answer format, and the repetition of the word ”peace” and ”die” ties each line to the one preceding it with no possibility of drift.

“The techniques of question & answer, and repetition, are effective ways to create dialogue continuity in your novels and screenplays.”

In Unforgiven, William Munny, a hired killer, is told that his old friend, Ned Logan, whom he talked into joining him for a contract job to take revenge on some cowboys for the beating and scarring of a prostitute, has been killed by the Sheriff, Little Bill, and his men. This, despite the fact that Ned had withdrawn from the contract earlier without having harmed anyone. The news is a major turning point in the story:

Prostitute: Ned? He’s dead.
Munny: What do you mean he’s dead? He went south yesterday, he ain’t dead.
Prostitute: They killed him. I thought you knew that.
Munny: Nobody killed Ned. He didn’t kill anyone. He went south yesterday. Why would anybody kill Ned? Who killed him?

There are other ways to turbo-charge dialogue – pregnant pauses, misdirection, change of subject, subtext, but in all cases the important thing to remember is that each piece of effective dialogue should, at the very least, hook tightly into the next. Question / answer and repetition of specific words are two of the most common ways to achieve this.

Summary

The techniques of question/answer and repetition are effective ways to create dialogue continuity in your novels and screenplays.

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One-page proposal – how to write it.

The one-page proposal
The one-page proposal.

What is a one-page proposal?

Producers and publishers have limited time at their disposal. They continuously receive requests to read new work, most of which they eventually reject. The one-page proposal is designed to capture their attention at a glance.

Think of the one page proposal as a selling document designed to hook the reader through the power and originality of your story idea—it doesn’t necessarily have to tell the whole story. The intention of this document is to impress the reader enough to have her request the fuller treatment, or, the first draft of your story. A proposal, therefore, must not be confused with a one page synopsis in that it isn’t designed to summarise the entire story. Rather, a proposal ought to fit on a single side of A4 paper or, on a single screen, and contain a lot of white space—in other words, appear uncluttered and be easy to read.

”The one-page proposal is a marketing document intend to interest agents, publishers, and producers in a story.”

Most importantly, the one-page proposal ought to: 

1. Contain a powerful log-line.

2. Propel the reader into imagining the entire project. It should set up the location, period, mood, and genre of the story. The more vivid and engaging the description contained in the proposal, the better the chance that it will hook and ignite the reader’s interest in it.

3. Identify the target audience/ reader

4. Contain the main story question—e.g. Will Maverick and his team of ace pilots succeed in bombing a foreign country’s unsanctioned uranium enrichment plant? (Top Gun: Maverick.) In the case of a movie or television script proposal: Reveal if any production elements that are already attached, such as actors, director, producer, or, are interested in the project.

Summary

The one-page proposal is intended to create interest in your project without taking up too much time. A successful proposal results in the agent, publisher, or producer asking for the treatment or first draft of your story. 

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Smashing Through Writer’s Block

How to break through writer’s block.
How to break through writer’s block.

Writer’s block. It happens to all of us at some point or another. 

It happened to me while I was writing what was to become my award-winning novel, The Land Below. One moment I’m conjuring up a storm—plot twists, colourful characters, and the like—only to suddenly grind to a halt. Next thing I know a month has passed without my having added anything more to my story. My muse had left the building. Heck, she’d left the planet!

I had succumbed to writer’s block.

But writer’s block, no matter how persistent, needn’t mean the end of your story. 

They say that genius is ninety-nine percent hard work and one percent inspiration, and they’re probably right.

Without the force of habit, hard things seem harder to do: Training in the gym. Getting up early for work – just skip exercising for a week, or return to work from a long holiday, and you’ll see what I mean. That engine just doesn’t want to turn over. There’s just not enough spark left in that battery. 

So, what to do? 

You could just give up and walk away. Have a drink. Take up table tennis. 

Or, like persevering with a car that won’t start, you could put your back into it and push. Never mind that the road is flat and narrow without a hint of a downward slope to make things easier. Never mind that there isn’t anyone to help you steer. If you want that engine to start, you just have to push until you gain enough momentum.

“Writer’s block will inflict us all at some time or another. The trick is to never give in to inertia and the sense of hopelessness it engenders.”

So, it is with writing. You have to fight the inertia. Grit your teeth and place those fingers on the keyboard. Write something. Anything. Heck, write about how much you hate writing.

Sure, what you write might be silly, uninspiring garbage that no one wants to read. But who cares? Silence that inner critic and push on. 

Five minutes today. Maybe ten tomorrow. Twenty the next. Just get back into the habit of writing, and inspiration be damned. 

Set yourself small goals – increase time spent daily at the keyboard. Pay no attention to the quality of the output just yet. Just write, write, write.

Suddenly, perhaps when you least expect it, the engine will turn. It might take several days. It might take a month, or longer. But inevitably, that engine will start and you will find yourself back in the driving seat steering the car down the road. 

And don’t be too surprised if a kilometer or two along you happen to stop to pick up a hitchhiker wearing a tee-shirt with a large M on the front, who spins you a yarn about how she’d skipped orbit for a while but is now back and eager to inspire.

Summary

Beat writer’s block by writing through it, one paragraph at a time, one day at a time.

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Suspension of disbelief – how to achieve it.

Suspension of disbelief—one if the topics covered in the book
Suspension of disbelief—one of the topics covered in the book.

In chapter 15 of Crafting Novels and Short Stories Scott Bell argues that audiences and readers need to be convinced of the credibility of a story in order to remain immersed in it. This is referred to as the suspension of disbelief.

Bell writes that sometimes a writer may push a plot point too far without sufficiently preparing us for it. Or, she may not push it far enough.

If something sounds right in outline but seems far-fetched when dramatised, re-examine the logic and emotions that lead up to it. If your murderer turns over a new leaf at the end of Act II, make sure you’ve given him an internal and external reason for this conversion.

“Suspension of disbelief is essential if one is to make the story credible.”

Additionally, remember to pace your scenes. They have an effect on the overall rhythm of the story. If your protagonist is alone for the first half of your film or novel, the narrative will contain no dialogue scenes. In the case of a novel, there will probably be much summary and reflection.

If your story takes place in a boat where four people are trapped for a day, however, you’ll probably have long scenes of dialogue. Here, it is important to vary the pace and rhythm of the dialogue. It will avoid monotony which weakens immersion and the suspension of disbelief.

As an exercise examine your plot’s rhythm by testing it against Scott Bell’s list:

  1. List all your scenes, skipping a line between each. Write down whether there needs to be any transition or change of pace between the scenes. Or can you simply jump to the next scene? If so, mark the scenes with “YES—I’m absolutely positive this part should be written as a scene,” or “MAYBE—in other words this needs to be a scene on its own.
  2. Search your story for scenes that can be combined. Here’s an example, specifically: You write a scene where your protagonist argues with her husband as he’s leaving for work, then you summarise her driving the kids to school, then include a scene where she gets her feelings hurt by her son as she drops him off at the curb.

“Unsurprisingly, overall story pace depends upon scene placement and construction.”

Perhaps you could combine the things that need to happen in the story. The other car won’t start so she’s got the kids and her husband squished into her car. She’s arguing with the husband as she’s trying to drive and can’t pay attention to the children, who are trying to get her attention. As she pulls up to the school, her son hurts her feelings on purpose as he’s getting out of the car. Lots going on. Not boring. And now the argument with the husband is tied to the child hurting her feelings.

  1. Study a film or novel you admire—something you would like to emulate. Jot down the length, number, and order of scenes, and in the case of a novel, the summaries, and passages of reflection. You will deepen your understanding and application of the above-mentioned techniques.

Summary
Pay attention to the techniques that go into the suspension of disbelief. Inject them into your own stories. Your tales will be all the better for it.

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Plot from character

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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How to set up the story’s surprise.

A well-crafted, well-timed surprise in your story quickens the blood and makes your story gripping and memorable.
Shutter Island contains a surprise of such magnitude that it changes the genre of the story.

What is the role of ‘the surprise’ in a story? And how is it set up?

A surprise can prevent complacency and predictability and boredom. Additionally, a well-timed surprise, stemming from an important revelation about a past event or character, can help make sense of the entire story. Placed near the end of a film or novel, it can leave a lasting impression.

Who can forget the explanatory power of ‘She’s my sister AND my daughter’, when Evelyn reveals the family’s unspeakable secret to Gittes near the end of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown? The revelation not only sheds light on the seemingly puzzling behavior of several characters, but it helps explain the murder at the center of the story.

“A well-crafted surprise is an antidote to boredom and predictability of a story.”

In Shutter Island, the surprise is more of an existential revelation than an unexpected twist. The film is a closed multiform narrative. Please check out my video on non-linear stories for more information on such narratives.

The film opens with Deputy Teddy Daniels, and his partner, Chuck Aule, arriving on the island to investigate a psychiatric facility where a patient has mysteriously disappeared. At first, Shutter Island appears to be a classical detective story. But things are not what they seem. The grand, existential surprise in the film not only turns the plot around, it changes the type of narrative it is—from detective story to psychological thriller. We accept the change because it has been carefully prepared for by the film-makers. The audience has been given a sense that the world is not what it seems, so when the grand surprise does come, it does not feel forced or far-fetched.

Summary

A well-crafted, well-timed surprise counters complacency and boredom by injecting narrative adrenaline into a story.

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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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What constitutes great writing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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