Tag Archives: writersblock

Surprise and Explanation in Stories

SurpriseONE of the joys of reading a well-written story is found in the element of surprise.

A surprise can prevent complacency and help avoid 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.

Surprise and Explanation

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.

In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the young protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, fails to understand the reasons why his uncle is disliked by his mother. Consequently he plays a childish prank on him, hoping to drive him away from their home. When his uncle is found dead in his bed the very next day, Benjamin thinks it is as a result of the prank and the guilt stays with him for decades. It seeps into other areas of his life, including his taking the blame for the accidental death of his wife, Miranda. By remaining unresolved the poorly understood event helps to define his life.

I knew that I had a powerful mechanism at my disposal that could ripple through the entire story. I just had to ensure that I used it at the right moment, in this instance, the climax – the nexus of the protagonist’s inner and outer life. I also had to make sure that the explanation it offered was credible. I did so by placing sufficient clues along the way, drawn from the backstory.

Judging from the reviews of The Nostalgia of Time Travel has received thus far, it appears that I may have succeeded.

Summary

A well-crafted, well-timed surprise in your story ties your protagonist’s inner and outer life together and leaves a lasting impression.

Structure of Stories and Intuition

Structure of intuitionSTRUCTURE is helpful in showing us how to write stories that flow well.

Developed from Aristotle’s core advice that a story should have a beginning, middle, and end, the study of structure has expanded then crystallised into a set of techniques that add detail to specific parts of a typical story, such as the inciting incident, turning points, and the like.

Certainly, tweaking a story at the editing stage through knowledge of such structural nodes helps the writer to smooth out the drafts that inevitably follow.

But how does a knowledge of structure help us write a better story while we are actually writing it? Surely, few of us write while thinking about such abstractions? Don’t we mostly follow the fire of the story, wherever it may lead us, at the level of the story and not of structure?

Structure and Intuition

Sidestepping debates of whether you are a plotter or a pantser, and avoiding an outright cognitive discussion of the process, I think the answer is that we do, at the point of contact, have to shift our synopsis to the background and write from the gut. We have to follow the fire.

But the fire is inevitably influenced by our knowledge of structure. And, of course, by our experience of life. So, while it may appear that the words flow spontaneously from our brains, they have been cultured, at a deeper level, by our knowledge of the craft and life.

We all have different ways of manifesting this deeper knowledge while we write. Some writers glance at key words and phrases such as ‘midpoint approaching’ on bits of paper stuck to the walls and desk; others allow their minds to flit to exemplars in order to intuit how great works have navigated similar problems.

My own awareness of structure manifests in a series of inner bumps and twists, or in an awareness of their absence, which alerts me to the possibility that I may have missed a structural node, or that I may need to change the direction and magnitude of specific actions in my story.

In the biggest confrontational scene of The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, I felt that I lacked an additional twist, an injection of kinetic energy, in order to push the story to its true climax. Interestingly, this feeling came not from the drama, but from the mechanics of structure, although it did force me to ferret out a powerful revelation, buried in the backstory, that had a huge impact on the drama itself.

Running through the scenes of a story in my mind, then, I often find myself jutting out an elbow, or pushing out a hip as I try to feel, in a visceral sense, necessary changes in narrative direction. Consequently, I often experience writing as a kind of dance – a free flowing stream that assumes shape through bends, turns, through its changes in direction.

Peculiar as this form of kinetic writing may be, it points to a deeper truth – that writers have to develop their own intuition of story structure, accessed on the go, in a way that does not interrupt the flow of the creative flame.

Summary

Our awareness of story structure during the first draft should nestle in the background, influencing the story but not inhibiting the creative fire.

Literature. Can it be as Popular as Genre Fiction?

Popular Literature?JUST LATELY I’ve come cross several blogs and editorials in social media that criticise literature and art film while praising genres such as Romance, Crime, and low-brow Science Fiction. Literary stories and art movies are seen as boring, introverted, and static while the former are pacy and exciting.

Now, goodness knows, literature can be slow and boring, as can off-beat movies. I’ve said so here on more than one occasion. But the same can be true of popular writing and films – unrealistic characters and settings juxtaposed against laughable plots spun around improbable actions resulting in formulaic endings. And all in the name of entertainment.

Literature versus the World

I don’t know about you but I don’t find stories peopled by thin, unrealistic characters entertaining at all. In fact I find a large number of them to be more boring than most literature or art films. Which is not to say that there isn’t value and skill in popular stories. I would not be writing in established genres if I didn’t believe in the potential of convention.

But I do believe that there are many things we can learn from literature and art film.

What kind of things, you ask?

Well, how about integrity, truthfulness, and enhanced observation that lead to a strong sense of connection with fictional characters? In my recent novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, I tried to create just such a connection between the reader and my protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos.

I think where literature and art films often leave themselves open to criticism is that they are big on insights about characters facing ordinary problems and small on exciting plots. It is almost as if some of these works see plot as something artificial, contrived. Several recent Pulitzer and Booker winning novels relate the life history of protagonists in a way that seems like a mannered study in chronology, albeit crammed with truthful observations about everyday life.

But the presence of an interesting plot need not harm the deep search for truth and meaning – the purvey of more serious works. After all, one of the most cherished modern stories, To Kill a Mocking Bird, manages to do both.

And, here, I think, may lie the solution to writing stories that are potentially more accessible to run-of-the-mill readers and audiences as well as endowed with deeper layers of value – namely, meaningful stories that contain strong and exciting plots.

I have a suspicion that the likes of Dickens, Mark Twain, and H. G. Wells, all popular writers in their day, might have agreed with me

Summary

Literature or art films driven by strong and exciting plots make for popular and meaningful reading and viewing.

Fifties through Eighties in Stories

Fifties through EightiesIn Childhood and Society, Erik Erikson, the German-born American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst known for his theory on psychosocial development of human beings, ends his discussion on the subject of one’s development by focusing on the topic of integrity versus despair – a topic that becomes more pressing as one enters one’s fifties.

Linda Seger defines a character’s integrity as the ability to hold to one’s ethical or moral identity, despite the powerful forces that threaten to knock one off track. Erikson believed that discovering how we can hold onto our integrity as we move through life is something we have to confront head-on.

As we begin to look back on our lives we ask the questions: How have we used our talents? How have we contributed to the world? In short, have we made of our lives something to be proud of?

Whereas during our earlier years we tend to focus on our achieving or rounding off success in the world’s eyes, our later years are devoted to scrutinising the true meaning of that success.

Fifties through Eighties

If one has compromised one’s integrity in pursuit of gain during our twenties, thirties, and forties, dealing with the spiritual and psychological consequences during our fifties and sixties becomes a growing preoccupation. Stories abound of unethical practices being revealed later in life, often stripping the character of her material possessions and public esteem.

Although Erikson sees this conflict as maturing in one’s sixties, it can pop up at any age. At home and in grade school, we are taught not to cheat or steal, and we do so at the expense of our conscience, leading to inner conflict – although it is probably true that our later years grant us more time for reflection.

The importance and longevity of this age-related theme is reflected in the number of films that have received Academy Awards in recent years: The Green Mile, American Beauty, A Beautiful Mind, Saving Private Ryan, Gladiator, Elizabeth, The Lord of the Rings, Traffic, The insider, L.A. Confidential, and the like.

Summary

Advancing years – fifties and beyond – offer us the perspective to consider the true value of our lives, and to reflect this in our writing.

Young Adults Want This in a Story

Young AdulthoodAlthough young adults may share some of the themes associated with the teen years, such as the search for love and intimacy and discovering one’s identity, this thematic category digs deeper than the former – explored in last week’s post. It tends to focus more on achievement and efficacy in the world. It not only establishes the theme as a protagonist’s goal, it scratches for the truth that lies below the surface.

Stories, such as Titanic and Elizabeth, for example, respectively explore the consequences of choosing someone to love that our parents would disapprove of, or choosing duty over love.

Young Adulthood and Story Themes – Linda Seger

Because many popular stories and films tend to cater for readers and audiences in their twenties and thirties their themes center more on success and achievement – strong driving forces in that age group.

Themes about success focus on achieving success in the world’s eyes – about public achievement. If the protagonist fails to have her dream acknowledged in the public arena it may be that the dream is unimportant or insignificant. Important achievements, by contrast, carry the stamp of public approval: John Nash wins the Nobel Prize in A Beautiful Mind, the first Star Wars ends with a ceremony, and Clarice receives an award at the end of Silence of the Lambs.

Stories in the category, can, however, be more inwardly-looking, exploring the conflict between career and family (Melvin’s Room, One True Thing), or the tension between fame, materialism and integrity – Magnolia, Jerry Maguire, Quiz Show. Here the storyline tends to explore the outer goal while the inner story, driven by a more intimate exploration of the theme, examines the inner world through subplot.

Regardless of the level of intimacy, however, stories that fall in the young adulthood category focus more on the consequences of pursuing success or fame through career, its rewards and costs, rather than discovering the themes as goals in the first instance – the first order search in teenage stories.

The young adulthood category, then, represents a maturing of the teenage dream into an ostensible set of goals that have public and personal effects.

Summary

Stories involving characters in the young adulthood category tend to explore the consequences, good and bad, of pursuing career, success, and fame.

Teenage Dreams

Teenage themesTeenage Dreams, the second in a series of articles dealing with age-specific stories, follows on from last week’s piece on childhood themes, drawn from Linda Seger’s Advanced Screenwriting.

Seger asserts that almost all teenage stories deal with the notion of identity, since our teens and early twenties are driven by our need to discover ourselves – who are we, what do we want to do, or be, when we grow up.

Teenage Themes

A teen-orientated story typically explores the themes of sexual identity (Risky Business, Boys Don’t Cry), discovering love (Titanic), finding one’s creative self in a conformist society, securing one’s individuality in a culture that often prescribes who you are or might become (Room with a View, The Cinder House Rules).

In my award winning novel, The Land Below, for example, Paulie, the book’s protagonist, who is nearing the end of his teens, refuses to accept the dictates of the Governor and Senators who insist that life on the surface of the world is unlivable and that one should not, under any circumstances, spread rumors to the contrary.

Fighting against these dictates, Paulie rejects his social status as a lowly orphan when he develops feelings for the Governor’s daughter and ends up becoming the leader of a band of teenagers seeking to escape the suffocating confines of the Land Below.

Paulie, in effect, redefines his place in society. But in doing so he threatens the Governor’s grip on the closely controlled subterranean world. It is this conflict between the freedom to choose and the impulse to control, rooted in the opposing needs of the protagonist (Paulie) and antagonist (Governor, et al.) that creates the plot of the story.

Importantly, then, the theme in any story steers the plot, turning it this way and that, as the protagonist continues to explore and test it until the end of the tale.

Summary

Teenage themes cluster around questions of who are we, what do we want to do, or be, when we grow up.

A Career in Writing? How to choose?

Bird in flightA student recently asked my advice on choosing her degree for the forthcoming year at college. She was at a crossroads and had to decide between a degree in screenwriting and something else.

It is always a challenge to advise students about which course of study to follow. There are so many variables – personal circumstances, talent, earning potential of a career, desire and love for it, all delicately and dynamically poised on the scales of local and world economics, politics, fads and fashions.

There is a huge responsibility riding on the purveyor of such advice. Does the student sacrifice preference for security? Does she follow her heart rather than her mind? In the context of the current economic climate, who’s to say, anyway?

I remember asking a similar question of a professor of literature at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg many years ago. He was a rather eloquent man with a quiet manner about him. He thought about my question for a moment before responding, (and here I paraphrase):

We are either engineers of the world’s body, or engineers of the world’s soul.

The first sort prefers solving external problems. Although there are always exceptions to the rule, such people generally love working with numbers, managing external goals, keeping great physical structures functional and erect. They are scientist, civil engineers, accountants, and the like.

The second group is more inward looking, curious about its motives and the motives of others. They constantly try to make sense of their lives by experiencing the events in them as factual stories – by creating a running documentary of their lives. They are avid readers, often have an almost obsessive desire to explore the meaning of words; they tend to perceive the world through metaphor and idiom, draw on stories to understand the world and themselves. Such people make good lawyers, psychologists, priests, social workers, and, of course, writers.

As I walked away from the professor’s office to mull over his advice, I couldn’t help thinking about the exceptions, about the mixing of categories. Arthur C. Clark, for example, was a scientist and a writer. Stanley Kubrick was a gifted filmmaker with a strong scientific zeal that informed his work. There are many others.

As I continued to think about things it became clear to me that passion for one’s field is important, and although the professor’s separate categories may be helpful, they are also porous, allowing for an exchange of material.

In the end, my decision to study literature, and later, filmmaking, was based on one overriding factor. Inspiration – I enrolled for the courses that inspired me.

Perhaps the student might consider doing the same.

Summary

Choose the field that inspires you.

A Great Story Depends on Great Timing

Clock faceIn a previous article I discussed the importance of syncing your hero’s outer journey to his inner journey – to his character arc. Today I want to say a bit more about the nature of that syncing.

It’s important to emphasise that your hero should not act beyond his state of moral and practical wisdom – his performance at the level of the outer journey has to reflect his knowledge at the level of the inner journey.

But why, then, if the hero keeps learning from the outer journey’s knocks, if the hero keeps improving, does he keep failing to attain the goal, until the end of the story?

The answer is to be found in the precise nature of the syncing, which is to say that the lesson learnt is always one step behind the evolving challenges posed by the outer journey. Hence, the knowledge the hero brings to a new confrontation is less than required to gain the goal and defeat the antagonist at that moment.

It is only towards the end of the journey that the hero is able to integrate the wisdom gained from the series of hard knocks, dig deep inside and produce a superlative response which defeats the antagonist and gains the goal.

In my best selling novel, Scarab, for example, 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) in order to gain what he needs (to save Emma’s life). It is a realisation that takes most of the story to achieve.

Summary

The lessons learnt by the hero lag behind the evolving challenges of the outer journey and the wisdom needed to defeat the villain and gain the goal until the end of the story.

The Hero’s Journey

Barb wire against sunsetI have often said that one of the joys of being a teacher of creative writing is that it affords me the opportunity to reflect critically upon my craft during the day and implement the insight this affords my own writing later.

Interestingly, moments of deeper inspiration tend to well up during the execution of the lecture rather than its preparation.

It was during such a lecture on character arcs that it occurred to me that one prevailing weakness in student work – failing to make the hero’s actions feel authentic – lay in students not having synchronised their hero’s outer and inner journeys.

To put it simply, their heroes acted too wisely or competently at specific points in the story. The action did not reflect the hero’s current state of knowledge, skill, and moral fortitude. Their inner and other lives were out of sync.

It stands to reason that if the character arc, in a classical tale, describes the hero’s growth from ignorance to knowledge (by which I mean moral and skill-based knowledge) through trail and error, then the quality of the hero’s actions must needs be weak in the beginning of the story and become effective only at the end. A hero therefore, can’t be achieving success, outsmarting the villain, taking the high moral ground, too early. She is simply not equipped enough for it yet.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, Benjamin Vlahos can’t free himself of his guilt until he recognises the truth about his past granted to him during the cyclone.

One way to add to verisimilitude to your hero’s actions, then, is to sync up her inner journey (her decision-making process), to her outer journey (the execution of her actions in her world); to have her earn success through a series of hard knocks where lessons, both moral and physical, are learnt. This will not only synchronise the two primal layers of the story, but it will help grant your protagonist a strong measure of authenticity too.

Summary

Synchronise your hero’s inner and outer journeys to help authenticate her actions.

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Why Do You Write?

Light through forestWhy do we write? This important question has been asked countless of times.

The response is probably as varied as the people asking it, ranging from the rather vague – I write because I have to, to the more pragmatic – it helps pay the bills.

But writing is such a difficult and lonely activity that I believe there has to be a deeper and more significant reason that explains why we keep returning to our keyboards.

Why is it important to know? Because when we lose our way – and sooner or later we all do, when the muse and market-place glance the other way, when the critics descend upon us like a plague of locusts – we need to grab hold of that reason and use it to help pull ourselves back up to higher ground.

“It pays the bills,” won’t do then. There are other easier ways to pay the bills. Neither will, “I write because I have to,” since during such times it doesn’t feel like you have to at all.

The answer is probably two-fold. The first part is true for most writers: realise that what you’re feeling now will inevitably change. Your strength and self-belief in your abilities will return, prompted by more positive reviews, fresh insights, wonderful new ideas, better sales.

The second part you have to work out for yourself. What is it about the craft of writing, specifically, that brought you to the deep well in the first place? Remember that feeling you had when you wrote that first paragraph, page, chapter, that got you hooked.

For me it was a short story I wrote for a school assignment about the unbounded joy a homeless kid feels when he finds a shiny coin in the street. The idea sprang out of nowhere and practically wrote itself. I remember that last line well. It said: “And in his little black hand, the shiny 50 cent piece was set off even more.” Naive as it was, it had heart and a social conscience beyond my conscious ability to craft it.

The story made it to the school’s end-of-year magazine and proved to me that there was a voice inside me that had something to say if I could just find a way to activate it. It was the start of my journey.

I’m sure you have an equally meaningful memory about the moment when you first realised that you had something to say. Remind yourself of it when the going gets tough. It may just help you get back on track.

Summary

Never forget the moment when you first realised you had something to say as a writer.

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If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with others. If you have a suggestion for a future one, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the bottom right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.