Some writers have neither the temperament nor the inclination to spend months gathering information about their projects, clarifying minute details about their characters’ likes and dislikes. These are the pantsers of the writing world—their writing flows better when they write from the seat of their pants.
Yet, even they, I would argue, need to address five essential points prior to commencing their stories in order to avoid stalling later on.
“A blank slate may cause writer’s block in the pantser, interrupting the writing for weeks, months or even years. This can be avoided by understanding the basic connections—statements reduced to single sentences—that arise between the hero, plot and theme, in a new story.”
Jot down the answers to the following questions and keep them close at hand while writing of your story:
Describe the story in one or two sentences. The description should include a beginning, middle and end.
Explain why the hero is compelled to try and attain the goal.
Note the secret the hero is hiding from everyone, perhaps even himself. How is this secret related to the hero’s flaw or wound?
Show how the discovery/admission of his secret realigns his goal, turning his want into his need.
State the theme of the story.
These five questions are enough to give any pantser a great start and keep him from going astray when the light dims, the muse gets Covid 19, and the rocks loom up ahead.
Prepare for the writing of a new story by carefully considering five essential questions about your tale.
If you could summarise areas of writing as a way of preparing your story, what would they be?
For me the story premise and theme form the foundation of all accomplished writing. I spend time on ensuring that the story premise is the best it can be before starting on a new manuscript.
“Preparing your story refers to the initial process you undertake prior to commencing the writing of your screenplay or novel.”
A story premise, we are reminded, can take the form of a what-if statement: What if the DNA of a Jurassic animal is discovered, fully preserved, in a mosquito caught in a dollop of ancient tree resin? What if the DNA can be used to clone the animal?
The best story premises are engaging, original, and fit the mood of the times. The best themes, on the other hand, espouse social or moral truths that are universal. In the example above, the theme might be colloquially summed up as: Don’t mess with nature or it will mess you.
Characters come next. How many characters do I need to achieve the maximum dramatic impact; to explore the theme from a number of different points of view? Too many characters and the theme becomes muddled. Too few and it remains under-explored.
In Jurassic Park we have the hero, his love interest and his supporters arguing for one side of the theme—respect nature. Arguing for the opposite side—exploit nature for gain, we have the antagonist and his crew. But of course the real antagonist is the T-Rex, the rod of God striking down humans for their greed and arrogance.
Next, are the character arcs. How do the characters change, especially the protagonist? How does the protagonist’s wound get in the way of his goal? What does the character have to learn, or heal, in order to defeat the antagonist? When thinking about any character arc try to relate it to the theme of the story, remembering that the theme is the pilot that flies the tale to its final destination.
In The Land Below, Paulie, the story’s reluctant hero, has to overcome his lowly social status as an orphan and lead a band of rebellious teenagers to the surface against the opposition of the ruling elders. To do this he has to accept his leadership role by acknowledging his past.
I next expand the story premise into a beginning, middle and end—Act I, II and III. I generate the main story beats and place them into a logical sequence within each act. The beats now have a direction, all pointing to the theme.
Lastly, I think about how I will write each scene based on such beats. I remind myself that most scenes should start late and end early. I ask, what goal must each character try to achieve in each scene? How does this goal fit into the character’s overall purpose?
But because the character has both an outer and an inner life I also ask: What is the character’s emotional state at the beginning of the scene and how is it conveyed to the reader through his demeanour?
How do the competing goals of the characters in the scene create conflict between them? What are they hiding from each other? Finally, what is the outcome of the conflict? Who is the winner and who is the loser? How does the outcome of the scene change their original demeanour?
These questions help to keep scenes focused.
Taken as a whole, these steps are enough to get me started on a new story. Perhaps you may find such an approach useful too?
Review essential skills and clarify foundational elements as a way of preparing your story prior to writing it.
How much does your choice of place or location influence your story?
The short answer is—significantly. My advice, therefore, is to write about places you are familiar with in order to retain a sense of realism.
But this is not always possible. Your story might demand exotic locations you’ve never visited, or include character types you’ve never encountered. After all, not many of us have flown into outer space or tangled with aliens.
Thankfully, we have research and imagination to rescue us, because, make no mistake, location deeply influences plot and character. Without an understanding of the physics of acceleration on weightlessness, stories such as 2001 A Space Odyssey, Apollo 13, Space Cowboys, Interstellar, and countless of others, would not have been as convincing.
“The influence of location on your story should not be underestimated. Location shapes the narrative by placing unique temporal and spatial constraints upon it.”
In Before the Light, much of the plot taps into the challenges that space presents to the crew of the space station, Gravity. The story which unfolds in this inhospitable environment, coupled with a seemingly rogue quantum computer, would not be as effective if it took place on earth.
The Great Gatsby required an understanding of 1920’s America, including prohibition, in order to tap into the ambience and motivation of the plot and characters.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula would not work without the cavernous castle in the Carpathian mountains of Romania, or the English setting of the protagonist’s love interest.
In short, write about places and people you know. Failing that, conduct research by visiting the locations you intend to describe, watch documentaries on the subject, or conduct interviews with people who are familiar with it. Your writing will feel more authentic for it.
Since location does indeed influence the story, write about places and people you know. Fill in the gaps through imagination and meticulous research.
Here is an effective way to draw your readers into your stories—infuse your writing with strong emotions.
Strong emotions draw us into intimate situations, allowing us vicariously to experience the characters’ lives as our own. But this demands maturity on the part of the writer. Firstly, to recognise the intricate web of emotions resulting from one’s own life. Secondly, to tie these emotions into a theme or premise. It involves a high level of self-awareness and critical thinking.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once offered some advice in response to a short story sent to him by Francis Turnbull, a Radcliffe College student and family friend.
“… I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at the moment. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly … It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile …”
”Strong emotions are the key to reader and audience engagement.”
What Fitzgerald is saying is that new writers have a better chance of engaging readers if they relate stories that contain heightened emotions based on personal experience. Characters and events can be adjusted to suit, but emotions should be drawn from strong, ‘lived’ experience. Fitzgerald believes this is the price of admission writers have to pay.
He continues, “the amateur, seeing how the professional having learnt all he’ll ever learn about writing, can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming – the amateur thinks he can do the same.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice, then, is to use powerful, personal experience to evoke heightened emotion in readers and audiences, especially when first starting out. Mining smaller, more trivial details for subject matter takes time and maturity to pull off.
Search your life for big, wrenching emotions and distill them into your stories. It will make your characters more authentic and impactful.
A strong theme is the reason we write a story. It is what a story is really about, the essence we most want to communicate. The theme contains the moral core of the tale—it shapes each narrative event that occurs in the story.
A theme is often associated with a specific age group, although at its heart a theme can appeal to any audience depending on how it shapes narrative events.
William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies, about boys stranded on an island who revert to tribalism appeals across the board. In some ways this theme has much in common with Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, which shows that left unchecked, men may descend into irrationality, cruelty and barbarity. What differs is how the theme renders each story.
In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Dr. Linda Seger breaks down age groups into the following categories: childhood, teen years, young adult, twenties to forties, fifties through eighties, old age, and end-of-life. Let’s take a look at themes associated with childhood.
“At the core of every story about children is a strong theme of self-esteem, trust, and a sense of belonging. Home Alone, War Games, and E.T. are good examples of this.”
A child embarks on a journey which gradually builds up her self-confidence, resulting in a sense of belonging and self-esteem. This growth is typically achieved by overcoming obstacles strewn in the child’s path by teachers, parents, bullies.
The child can deal with these problems in two ways – she can blame herself, become introverted, lose confidence, and grow depressed, or she can project the problem onto others and become rebellious and delinquent. This can effect the child’s family and friends, drawing them into her problems.
Typically, in an upbeat ending, the child gradually overcomes these obstacles by engaging in purposeful action driven by sustained effort, ingenuity, and courage. The catalyst is usually some meaningful event from the backstory which surfaces at the appropriate moment to help her reverse direction.
Although themes are universal, they are rendered differently for different audiences through the narrative events they express.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but a good story question has also saved the life of countless of tales.
In Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hauge points out that when a character or event is not fully explained, the reader or audience ploughs on in search for an answer.
Murder mysteries rely on our insatiable curiosity to discover the identity of the killer. Our curiosity increases with each red herring.
A film like Who Framed Roger Rabbit poses its title as a question whose answer drives the entire plot.
Less obvious are examples involving curious objects and actions such as the recurring motif of a peculiar mountain in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the reason behind Gatsby’s parties in The Great Gatsby.
“An intriguing story question generates curiosity in the reader or audience. It keeps us interested in the story.“
The longer the writer withholds the answer to a question the more satisfying the revelation.
In Citizen Cane, discovering the meaning of “Rosebud” whispered by the dying Charles Foster Kane to a reporter, drives the entire story.
In Silverado, the Kevin Kline character, Paten, is often asked, “Where’s the dog?” Our curiosity is piqued. Why do the characters keep asking about the whereabouts of this animal? It‘s only towards the end of the film that we learn that Paten was once captured during a robbery because he tried to rescue a dog. This does not only satisfy the audience’s curiosity over the unanswered question, it increases our sympathy for Paten, too.
One of the most riveting scenes in all of cinema occurs in the film, Marathon Man. The old, drill-wielding Nazi, played by Sir Laurence Olivier, keeps asking a terrified Dustin Hofmann, “Is it safe?” “Is what safe?“ the panicked victim asks, over and over again.
It’s true that the technique of asking questions throughout the tale is not enough to carry the entire weight of the narrative alone. However, used with other structural devices such as turning points, pinches, and the mid-point, such questions propel the tale towards its climax and resolution in a compelling way.
Prevent your tale from flagging, by posing a story question at strategic points in your tale.
Powerful scenes are the building blocks of successful stories.
Strong scenes bring characters, action and dialogue together. They form strong narrative units that enrich characters and promote plot. As such, we need to master the ins and outs of scene construction. Before attempting to write a scene ask yourself:
Who is the focus character in the scene, i.e. which character has the most to lose?
What does the focus character (usually the protagonist) want to achieve in the scene?
Describe the focus character’s emotional stance at the beginning of the scene.
What is the obstacle standing in the way of the focus character achieving the goal in the scene?
If the obstacle is another character, (usually the antagonist or his lackey) answer questions 1-4 for that obstacle character.
What is the outcome of the clash between the focus character and the obstacle force or character?
What is the emotional stance of the focus character after the clash? How does his physical demeanour and dialogue change to convey it?
Describe the emotional stance of the obstacle character after the clash. How does his physical demeanour and dialogue change to convey it?
How does the result of the clash cause the next scene?
“Opposing character goals generate conflict, the life-blood of powerful scenes. They reveal the motivation of the characters, authenticating them.”
In Edge of Tomorrow, Major William Cage, a television personality, hides behind cameras and microphones to dodge the draft. He is called to General Brigham’s office. He believes he will be covering the Allied attack against the invading Mimics from the relative safety of America. The General, however, wants Cage to deploy with the USA soldiers and cover the action on the ground. Both men have distinct goals at the start of the scene. Their demeanour supports those goals.
After the clash, Cage has failed to blackmail the General into letting him off the hook. He is arrested, stripped of his rank and forced to deploy overseas as a private. His cocky attitude has been reduced to one of protestation and panic. The General’s quiet demeanour, on the other hand, underscores his victory.
The scene follows the structure laid out above. Use it in your own stories. Your writing should perk up substantially.
Powerful scenes display a specific pattern. Study this pattern until it becomes entrenched in your writing.
So, you want to write a great story? Then at the very least you should relate the hero’s character arc to his struggle to achieve his goal.
Causally linking the hero’s inner growth to the quality of his actions will help ensure the authenticity of the story. Importantly, your hero should never act beyond the limits of his current moral, spiritual and physical skills. The quality of his performance at the level of action has to reflect his current ability to achieve it. As the hero grows so does the efficacy of his actions.
But if the hero keeps improving through each hostile encounter, why does he not attain the goal earlier in the story?
”The hero’s character arc, his growth towards moral, spiritual and physical power remains insufficient to overcome the worsening challenges he encounters—until his final confrontation with the antagonist.”
That‘s because the hero’s growth is outpaced by the increase in difficulty of each new challenge. The knowledge that the hero brings to each new confrontation is less than the knowledge required to gain the goal—until the final conflict, where the necessary lessons have been fully learnt. It is only then that the hero is able to integrate the separate areas of growth needed to defeat the antagonist.
in Edge of Tomorrow, Major William Cage has to die countless of times before he acquires the necessary skill to defeat the Mimics that have decimated the earth. It is only when he is stripped bare of his ignorance, and his ability to resurrect himself, that he finally stands a chance at a permanent victory against the invading aliens.
In the best selling novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, fails to outwit the villain and protect the woman he loves until he realises that he must sacrifice what he wants, to win Emma’s love, if he is to gain what he needs—to save her life. It is a realisation that takes him most of the story to achieve.
The hero’s character arc, his growth towards spiritual, moral and practical strength, lags behind the evolving challenges of the plot, until the end of the story.
One bit of advice we keep hearing is that our stories should feel real—that the characters they describe should be authentic.
But how does one pull this off?
An understanding of human nature does not necessarily mean that you can communicate it effectively in a story. The first requirement rests on observation, study and experience. The second assumes knowledge of the craft of dramatic writing. Both skills are necessary. Both are distinct.
Effective writing requires a mastery of techniques specific to the craft—techniques that allow writers to distill and transcribe their experience into stories that move us deeply. Being able to craft authentic characters is a step in that direction.
Characters who display likes, dislikes, foibles, specific values, and individual memories—characters that feel both unique and familiar at the same time resonate with us because we recognise ourselves in them.
Fear, hope, regret, loss, pain, and nostalgia are emotions we have all experienced at some time or another. Effectively evoking such emotions strengthens our involvement with a story.
“Characters who experience powerful emotions we recognise in ourselves, make for successful stories.”
Who can forget these lines spoken by the HAL 9000 computer as it is being shut down by Dave Bowman, in 2001, A Space Odyssey?
HAL I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a… fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.
DAVE BOWMAN: Yes, I’d like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me.
HAL: It’s called “Daisy.” [sings while slowing down, voice distorting] Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy all for the love of you. It won’t be a stylish marriage, I can’t afford a carriage. But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.
The pathos that this passage evokes serves to humanise HAL’s character.
In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, describes his love for a specific cafe located in Mission Beach on Australia’s east coast:
“There is a small cafe off the beaten path near Mission Beach in the north that makes the best waffles I’ve ever tasted. Miranda and I once had breakfast there, as newlyweds, while on a tour across Australia and the place stuck with me; but that was a long time ago.
These days you know the shop is there, even though it’s hidden by trees and shrubs and clamping bamboo that sways five metres tall, because the scent of freshly ground Brazilian coffee can keep no secrets.
The tables, now mostly vacant, are covered with green tablecloths with cigarette burns. The chairs have thatch seats that creak when you sit down, though never enough to spoil the constant stream of blues and jazz on vinyl from a Philips turntable. The walls are strewn with dusty black and white photographs of the town before they found coal, a few kilometres up the road.
Not many people drift into O’Hara’s anymore. They built a pier nearby with the coal money and a three-level shopping centre, with more parking than there are people in the town. It’s filled with glass and chrome restaurants, bars and shops, and the place now draws much of the crowd away. I’m still a regular customer though.”
Benjamin’s sense of nostalgia for a past that has slipped away, his memory of the breakfast he once had here with his wife, his love for Brazilian coffee, and his tacit condemnation of the new shopping centre, grants us a heart-felt snapshot of his mental and emotional state – a sense of ‘felt life’, which gives the story its sense of authenticity.
Imbuing characters with emotion is a powerful technique writers use to draw readers and audiences into their stories.
Memorable dialogue makes for a memorable story. It is both an art and a craft, and as such, warrants lifelong study.
Few would doubt that the ability to write great dialogue is necessary for crafting a successful screenplay, but should a novelist regard this skill as equally important?
Although novels no longer lead the story market as they did a century or two ago, they do survive as an alternative vehicle for experiencing narrative.
Of course, competition from films and computer games has impacted how current novels are written, giving rise to a requirement for stories with a faster pace, higher stakes, and yes, impactful and gripping dialogue. Memorable dialogue offers the writer the opportunity to compete.
”Memorable dialogue draws us into the hearts and minds of the characters who express it, and it does so with immediacy and impact.”
The topic has inspired the writing of countless of books and courses, but here is a short list on what great dialogue should accomplish:
Dialogue should provide information necessary for the understanding of the story.
Dialogue should evoke story questions.
Dialogue should reveal emotion.
Dialogue should advance the plot.
Dialogue should characterise both the speaker and the person to whom it is spoken.
‘I forgot,’ Lennie said softly. ‘I tried not to forget. Honest to God I did, George.’
‘O.K.—O.K. I’ll tell ya again. I ain’t got nothing to do. Might jus’ as well spen’ all my time tell’n you things and then you forget ‘em, and I tell you again.’
‘Tried and tried,’ said Lennie, ‘but it didn’t do no good. I remember about the rabbits, George.’
‘The hell with the rabbits. That’s all you ever can remember is them rabbits. O.K.! Now you listen and this time you got to remember so we don’t get in no trouble. You remember settin’ in that gutter on Howard street and watchin’ that blackboard?’
Lennies’s face broke into a delighted smile. ‘Why sure, George, I remember that…but…what’d we do then? I remember some girls come by and you says…you say…’
‘The hell with what I says. You remember about us goin’ into Murray and Ready’s, and they give us work cards and bus tickets?’
‘Oh, sure, George, I remember that now.’ His hands went quickly into his side coat pockets. He said gently, ‘George…I ain’t got mine. I musta lost it.’ He looked down at the ground in despair.
‘You never had none, you crazy bastard. I got both of ‘em here. Think I’d let you carry your own work card?’
This dialogue, filled with pathos and authenticity, jumps right off the page, offering us an alternative experience to the current obsession with superheroes. It captures the tone and colour of speech, evokes backstory, and offers us a heart-felt glimpse into who these characters truly are.
You won’t get that kind of authenticity from the men and women who swoosh around the skies in capes and tights, now will you?
How many of the five elements of memorable dialogue mentioned in the list above can you find in this extract? Write in and let me know!
Memorable dialogue performs several functions simultaneously, driving the plot forward while simultaneously revealing the depths of the characters who express it.