Tag Archives: writetip

Pace your Story by Writing Contrasting Scenes.

The Godfather achieves one of the most disturbing scene sequences in all of cinema through the pace of the intercutting of a baby being baptised in a Catholic Church with the violent murder of the Corleone family’s enemies across the city.
Mastery of pace: The Godfather achieves one of the most disturbing scene sequences in all of cinema through the intercutting of a baby’s baptism in a Catholic Church with the violent murder of the Corleone family’s enemies across the city.

How do you determine the pace of a story? How many scenes do you include in a good script? The two questions are related.

Some screenplays have less than seventy five scenes, some more than a hundred. In novels this number varies even more, with some of the greatest stories ever written running into many hundreds of scenes.

Some scenes are extremely short. They include establishing scenes such as a street exterior or bridging scenes such as entering a lift. These scenes are meant to locate a character in a specific time and place or get her from A to B. Most scenes engaged with plot and character development, however, span several pages.

Film scripts that are comprised of a handful of long scenes underutilise the potential of the film medium and are more suited to being rendered as a stage play. On the other hand, a ninety minute film that includes hundreds of short scenes will feel frenetic, hurried, underdeveloped.

“Contrast one scene with another to regulate the pace of the story. Your scenes will feel less monotonous and more engaging for it.”

One way to pace a story is to balance scenes through contrast and length. As a general rule dark scenes should be balanced by lighter ones, somber scenes with ones that are more joyful, and slower scenes with faster paced ones. 

In Fatal Attraction, for example, Alex and Dan are languidly lying in bed together. Cut to the next scene which catapults us into lively dancing inside a loud jazz club. This speeds up the action and prevents a sense of sameness that leads to boredom. 

Contrast can also be created through intercutting. In Schindler’s List a wedding scene in the concentration camp is intercut with Schindler kissing a girl in a club, which, in turn, is intercut with the commandant beating Hellen.

In The Godfather, a Catholic baptism in a church is intercut with the Corleone family’s enemies being gunned down across the city in a frenzy of violence. The slow-moving church ritual is in sharp contrast to the mob violence. This creates shock and awe in the audience. Having brutality play out at length on its own would have produced a monotonous beat.

Contrasting the pace, length and texture within and across scenes, then, creates an appropriate rhythm and movement—quite simply, the scenes feel right. Failing to do so creates a flat line that leads to monotony and boredom.

Exercise: Read through several scenes you’ve written. Does the pace, texture and mood vary from one scene to the other, or do the scenes feel the same in these registers? If the latter, try changing the above-mentioned parameters in consecutive scenes and watch your story perk up!

Side note: If you’re interested in learning more about the hero’s arc, with examples from the movies, check out my latest video on YouTube! How to Write the Hero’s Arc.

The presence of epiphany in the character arc

The presence of epiphany in The Nostalgia of Time Travel
The presence of epiphany in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

The presence of epiphany in the character arc tells us that the protagonist has achieved a high level of moral, spiritual and emotional self-awareness. This allows him to prevail against the antagonist.

I want to say a little more about the moment that finally proves that the hero has arrived at his zenith.

Let’s start by restating that the protagonist initiates action as a response to some physical conflict or threat at the level of plot. Typically, he receives a challenge which he is forced to tackle head-on. But this requires that he first make a decision of how to proceed.

So: 1. A challenge is issued by the antagonist. 2. The protagonist makes a decision of how to respond. 3. The protagonist takes action based on that decision. 4. The antagonist responds, further thwarting the protagonist. 5. The protagonist initiates more action to try and achieve the goal by other means.

“The realisation of a buried wound or hidden flaw allows the protagonist to face the outer challenge with increased honesty and clarity. Newfound power is initiated through the presence of epiphany.”

But because the protagonist lacks the emotional, moral and spiritual maturity for the greater part of the story, he fails to make the right decisions, until his suffering, resulting from his string of defeats, causes him to learn from his mistakes.

The quality of the protagonist’s decisions, therefore, directly impacts the quality of his actions. He can only achieve victory when he has fully achieved maturity—usually by the end of the story. This maturity is indicated through the moment of epiphany—the recognition of some deeply buried truth that has kept him down all this while.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, who is his own antagonist, breaks his decades-old isolation when he faces the truth about his childhood and forgives himself his one great mistake that led to the death of his beloved wife. It is this realisation, based on painstaking emotional, spiritual and moral maturation, that finally allows him to move forward with what remains of his life.

Exercise: Study the climax in something you’ve written. Is your protagonist’s victory or defeat predicated on his recognition (or lack of it) of a buried wound that has hamstrung him all along? If not, try weaving it into your story from the get-go.

Summary

The presence of epiphany marks the last stage of the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery.

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The inner life of characters in stories

The book teaches how to craft the inner life of a character.
The book teaches how to craft the inner life of a character.

We’ve all heard that dialogue should not be direct – that it should hint at the inner life, the emotions, attitudes, grudges, and wounds beneath the surface layer of speech, rather than merely convey information. But how do we achieve this in our writing?


In a previous article I talked about ‘dactions’ – that’s my word for combining language with gestures and actions to enhance meaning. Here is an example taken from Deborah Harverson’s chapter in Crafting Dynamic Dialogue (Writer’s Digest Books):

“Aren’t you thoughtful?” She took the rose he’d handed her and walked to the sink where she kept her vase. Two other roses rested in it, one from the week before, wilting slightly. Both were peach, matching the tight bud in her hand. He loved to give her flowers but dismissed red roses as cliché. “I stopped by Sue’s apartment today,” she said, turning on the water, her back to him. “She had a rose on her kitchen table.” She reached forward, past the running water, past the vase, to the switch on the wall. Resting her finger on it, she turned and smiled sweetly at him. He’d stopped in the doorway, one glove off, the other dangling from his fingers. He wasn’t tugging on it anymore. “A peach rose in a tall vase,” she said, “right there next to her violin.” She poked the bud’s stem into the garbage disposal then flicked the button. The grinder roared as it sucked the flower down, flecks of peach petal flicking free, but he heard her clearly: “You told me you hate musicians.” 

The inner life is key

Halverson notes that this is a deeply wounded woman whose pain manifests through quiet statements, the last one ‘making you cringe from the intensity of its delivery.’

The rose becomes the nexus for all sorts of emotions—love, betrayal, hurt. It is transformed into a symbol of infidelity. Rather than her directly accusing the man of infidelity through yelling and dish-throwing, she shreds the rose to convey her pain and anger.

One would do well to remember this advice. Subtext, combined with small, telling actions reveals the inner life of a character, delivers more punch, without melodrama or direct violence. Anger passes; a calculated response suggests an unsettling resolve that may be far more damaging and permanent.

Exercise: Locate a passage in your own work where two or more people are at loggerheads. Have one character respond in a way that suggests resolve rather than rage.

Summary

Combining gestures with a calm response to a situation can paradoxically generate stronger emotions that reveal the inner life of the characters.

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The power of evocative language

Stranger things achieves much of its power through plot and character conveyed by evocative writing.
Stranger Things achieves much of its power of plot and character through evocative language.

Evocative language. What is it?
Simply put, evocative language builds expectation, tension, and establishes mood. It sucks the reader into the story through the very vividness of its prose and dialogue.



The pilot episode of Stranger Things opens with:

EXT. MONTAUK SKY – NIGHT

We FADE UP on the night sky. Dark clouds swallow the stars.
We hear a LOW-END RUMBLE. It sounds almost like thunder, only it is somehow more alive. Like the growl of an unseen beast. We TILT DOWN to find…

In the scene above the descriptive language adds to the mood and setting. Words such ‘rumble’, thunder’ and growl’ lend a sense of menace, as does the simile of the ‘unseen beast.’ This is a powerful start to the episode—one that hooks us into the story from the get-go, primarily through the power of the language.

“Evocative language helps to hook the reader into the story from the get-go.”

In The Nostalgia of time Travel, a strange, almost occult mood is established through choice words:

“Incandescent symbols spiral along the moist eye of the cyclone. I jot them down as quickly as I can, but it is difficult to keep up. Look directly at them and they vanish. I catch them out of the corner of my eye. Like the half-glimpsed phantoms haunting my childhood, they are shapes that the mind has more to do in the making than the eye in perceiving…

… And suddenly I see them, grey, cloud-sized ghosts shimmering behind the symbols. They slide along the inside of the funnel like images on the curved screen of some experimental movie theater whose aspect ratio is not quite right.”

Here, the language is both concrete and ethereal. The eye of the cyclone is ‘moist’. The ‘symbols’ are like ‘half-glimpsed phantoms’—‘cloud-sized ghosts shimmering’ as they slide along the inside funnel of the storm. The simile of ‘ghosts’ appearing on the screen like ‘some experimental movie theater whose aspect ratio is not quite right’ is unexpected and creates a sense of the old and new worlds colliding. Lastly, the cyclone is as much a symbol of the inner turmoil of the protagonist as it is a dangerous, physical event. As readers we sense this through the subtext and it raises our involvement and expectation.

Evocative language, then, is versatile. It creates deeper levels of meaning and emotion. It helps the writer set the mood, build expectation and sustain the plot and action.

Exercise: Locate a passage in your own writing that describes a place, character or time. Find the verbs and nouns that describe it. Is the language as tactile and sense-driven as it can be? If not, amp up the vividness of the language.

Summary

Use evocative language to create the appropriate mood for your scenes.

Character actions and the character arc

Perfectly Calibrated character actions in Edge of Tomorrow.
Perfectly calibrated character actions in Edge of Tomorrow.

I have often talked about the need to align your hero’s actions against the character arc if a story is to be believable. I emphasised that the quality of a character’s actions depends on that character’s state of moral, spiritual, and psychological development. The hero can not defeat the antagonist until he has achieved maturity, often through pain and suffering.

But where and how does the writer incorporate this alignment?

The short answer is that the alignment should be checked at the pivotal points in the story – the introduction to the ordinary world, the inciting incident, the first turning point, the midpoint, the second turning point, the climax, and the resolution. 

Indeed, the introduction to the ordinary world and the resolution present the sharpest points of contrast in the hero’s growth, being at the polar ends of his character arc. They help to set the scale for calibrating his growth.

It is now easier to align actions and events on a scale of lesser or greater effectiveness. The second turning point, for example, contains some growth in wisdom, certainly more than at the first turning point, but less so than at the climax, which delivers the maximum growth – if the hero is to defeat the antagonist.

“Character actions feel authentic when they arise as a result of the state of moral and technical knowledge at specific points along the character’s arc.”

In Edge of Tomorrow, Cage, struggles to defeat an alien enemy that can see into the future. Cage is killed, but his reality is reset, affording him an opportunity to try again. But to no avail. He keeps getting things wrong. He keeps dying. It is only when he lets go of his fear of losing the woman he loves and decides to sacrifice himself, that he is able to blindside the enemy. That moment is the climax of the story and represents Cage’s full maturation. His actions have been perfectly aligned to his character arc.

In my own novel, The Level, the protagonist perceives the truth about his inability to escape his environment only when he embraces his identity and uses it to defeat the antagonist. His previous actions have been ineffective largely because of his lack of self-awareness.

In both cases actions that lead to progress only occur when the deeper truth about a character’s inner life is exposed and understood.

Summary

Calibrate character actions along the pivotal points in your story to keep them in sync.

Desire and fear in stories

Desire and fear in Breaking Bad—one of the best tv series ever!
Desire and fear in Breaking Bad—one of the best tv series ever!

Since character is fundamental to storytelling, it is helpful to understand the intricate relationship between character, action and story on a scene-by-scene basis—and that involves understanding the role of desire and fear in initiating action.

I propose a schema in which the writer inputs both the character’s (1) desire for the goal, and (2) his fear in trying to achieve it, (informed by present challenges as well as past wounds), into a kind of story-mixing device which then (3) motivates the character, resulting in (4) action. Action, in turn, blends with that of other characters, resulting in (5) narrative events that comprise the story.

Too often, we get lost in the story we want to tell. This can turn our characters into mere puppets serving the plot. What is useful about this schema is that it forces us to think about a character’s motivation for the actions he initiates. It draws our attention to the character’s inner life—his wounds, hopes and fears. 

“Desire and fear plug into motivation, which initiates character action.”

Further, if we apply the schema at the major turning points of the story—the first turning point, the mid point, the second turning point and the climax—we can more effectively combine the physical journey of the tale with the inner journey of the protagonist and other characters. 

Additionally, the schema is expandable. It forces us to think about the character’s  past—to ask, what are the roots of his hopes and fears? In short, it encourages us to think about backstory elements that help explain his motivation.

Consider the scene in which Breaking Bad’s Walter White steps inside the den of the psychopathic drug dealer, Tuco, to retrieve the meth Tuco stole from his partner, Jesse Pinkman after beating him up. What Walter really wants, however, is for Tuco to distribute his meth. Walter is patted down by Tuco’s goons and seems destined for the same treatment Jessie received.

What is Walter’s motivation for such a seemingly foolish, suicidal mission? 

Let’s analyse this powerful scene in terms of our schema: Walter’s (1) desire is to get Tuco to pay for the meth he stole, compensate Jesse for the beating he gave him, and agree to distribute the meth Walter and Jesse produce. His (2) fear is that Tuco will kill him there and then! His (3) motivation for the (4) action that follows stems from his growing confidence, based on the quality of his product and the opportunity to build up his meth business through Tuco.

He threatens Tuco that if he does not let him leave unharmed he will blow every one up with the chemicals he has brought with him disguised as meth. To prove his point he throws a shard of ‘product’ on the floor causing an explosion. (5) The result is that not only does Tuco pay Walter for the meth he stole from Jesse, he pays for having beaten him up too. What’s more, Tuco orders a large shipment of meth from Walter and agrees to pay up front for it! Walter has more than succeeded in gaining his goal.

This is a brilliant scene, from a brilliant series, and one that can be understood by applying the input-output schema I have offered above. 

Exercise: Pluck out the protagonist from one of your stories. Ensure that your protagonist exhibits a mixture of desire and fear which motivates his actions, especially at the turning points.

Summary

Input a character’s desire and fear into the mix to determine that character’s motivation for action.

Infuse texture, colour and music in your writing

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, master of texture, colour and music in writing.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, master of texture, colour and music in writing.

Thoughts on the texture, colour and music in writing.

The internet is replete with advice on story structure—on turning points, character arcs, symbolism, and the like. Certainly, those structures are essential to the craft of accomplished writing. But there is another aspect that is not as often discussed. This is at the layer of language—the choice of words, their texture, their sound and colour. 

The quality of language is what we encounter first; in a novel, it may first manifest in a single sentence or paragraph. The point is that if we are attracted to the language we are more likely to keep on reading.

Consider the textures, colours and music rendered in the examples below:

I heard the sonic rip of a military jet, like a giant trowel being dragged through wet concrete, but saw only blue above, a raw and saturated blue that seemed cut from an inner wedge of sky. ~ Rachel Kushner

“Memorable language has its own particular texture, colour and music. Once experienced, it tends to stay with you forever.”

Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing and the sands of the beach, which on March nights glimmered like powdered light, had become a stew of mud and rotten shellfish. ~ Gabriel Garcia Marquez

But in another city, another valley, another ghetto, another slum, another favela, another township, another intifada, another war, another birth, somebody is singing Redemption Song, as if the Singer wrote it for no other reason but for this sufferah to sing, shout, whisper, weep, bawl, and scream right here, right now. ~Marlon James

Over the city lies the sweet, rotting odor of yesterday’s unrecollected sin. ~Hilary Mantel

And if I might be so bold as to include a passage from one of my own novels

It’s an hour’s walk back home from O’Hara’s along the beach. I carry my notebook in my pocket and my slip slops in my hand. My bare feet squelch into the warm, wet cocktail of sand and shell fragments. Bubbles swell up between my toes, pop off then reappear like baby universes born out of the void by the pulse of quantum fluctuation.
~Stavros Halvatzis, The Nostalgia of Time Travel.

There are countless examples of textured writing; you will know them when you see them. Some will become permanent fixtures in your memory to be recited out aloud just to hear them. Do so whenever you feel your enthusiasm in your writing sag.

Exercise: What are some of your most beloved fragments of writing? List them in a journal. Read them out aloud to yourself, noting their colour, texture and music whenever you need a jab of inspiration. 

Summary

Learn to use the texture, colour and music of language. Together with a deep knowledge of character and story structure it is the path to accomplished writing.

How to work with backstory

Unforgiven is a master class on how to work with backstory,
Unforgiven is a master class on how to work with backstory,

Do you know how to work with backstory?

There is no shortage of how-to articles on writing on the internet, not least of all material on this website; there are articles on the inciting incident, turning points, on character arcs, dialogue and a multitude of other narrative elements. 

And this is all to the good. 

But there are some subtle aspects of the subject that are not as often discussed, such as how much exposition or backstory to reveal, and when to reveal it. 

The Whodunit, for one, can’t succeed without mastery over this element, but truthfully, most stories deploy the technique, since most stories withhold information from the backstory to intrigue and surprise. 

The question hence arises, when, where, and how much information to reveal or withhold?

“The more knowledgeable you are about story structure the more easily you’ll work with backstory – the art of when, where and how to best reveal background information.”

Enter the three act structure. Knowing that the first act’s task is to introduce the world and its characters, to create a ripple in the status quo and to state the goal—the first few pages that include inciting incident and the first turning point are good places to slip in nuggets of backstory. Ditto for the second act’s midpoint and second turning point, and the third act’s climax and resolution.

Information, at these junctures, may be leaked through action, direct dialogue, or subtext. 

When, in Unforgiven, one of the deputies doubts Little Bill Daggett’s courage, another deputy quips (and I’m paraphrasing here): “Little Bill scared? Little Bill grew up in (the mean streets of) Kansas. Little Bill ain’t scared. He’s just no carpenter.” 

The dialogue is laconic, befitting men of action. Nevertheless,  it does leak enough backstory to reveal just how tough an opponent Little Bill is going to be for William Munny.

Earlier in the story, at the inciting incident, the Schofield Kid rides into Munny’s pig farm to ask him join him on a job to kill two cowboys who cut up the face of a prostitute. He asks if Munny is the same William Munny who killed so many people, including women and children, in the past. Munny simply replies, “I guess so.” The scene is understated and rather humorous, playing on the Kid’s naive awe for Munny’s ‘achievements’. It nonetheless gives us important background information about Manny’s past as a ruthless killer.

Additionally, Munny’s constant chatter about how his wife helped him abandon his wicked ways is an adroit way of sneaking in backstory. For example, he tells his children how, at one time, he might have whipped and cursed a horse for throwing him off, then later tells his old friend Ned that he ‘ain’t like that no more’.

The point is that the writer has to place nuggets of backstory at appropriate moments, preferably around the structural pivots, and even then, only as many as necessary to serve the drama.

Exercise: Consider a story you have written. Are there sections that leave you confused, rather than intrigued? Could this be solved by introducing more backstory elements? If so, tuck in only as much new information as is necessary through subtext, skilful dialogue or telling action. Try to locate it inside or close to one or more structural beats (discussed on this site). Use character emotion in the scene to distract the reader away from this slight-of-hand.

Summary

Sneak in just enough exposition to keep the reader or audience hungry to know more. Tucking in information around the structural beats and filtering it through the psychology of a character helps to keep the information unobtrusive.

Two Lives – the hero’s twin struggles

To]wo lives in The Nostalgia of Time Travel, a novel by Stavros Halvatzis
in The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos has to unearth the secrets in his past, settle the suppressed conflict in his two lives, in order to survive the raging storm which has engulfed his small town of Mission Beach, Queensland.

One of the most common errors in writing is the failure to motivate the hero’s actions, the failure to sync up his two lives.

All too often the hero acts too wisely or performs too competently during the story, especially at the start. His actions do not reflect his current state of knowledge, skill, and moral awareness. Typically, this is because his inner and outer lives are out of step with each other. This is a most common ailment that presents as a glaring lack of motivation in a character.

Let me explain: If, as is the case in a typical tale, the purpose of the story is to showcase the hero’s growth from ignorance to knowledge through a series of hard knocks, it stands to reason that the quality of his actions must be lower at the beginning of the story than at the end. A hero can’t be achieving success, outsmarting the antagonist, taking the high moral ground, too early. He has simply not earned that right yet.

“The quality of a character’s actions is related to the quality of his moral awareness—these two lives are causally linked.”

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, Benjamin Vlahos can’t break free of the guilt that has paralysed him for decades until he recognises the truth about his past through a series of suppressed recollections about his childhood. His freedom must be earned, not dropped into his lap by the writer. Facing up to the reasons for his actions is what the story is about.

And so it is with most stories.

One way to add to realism to your hero’s actions, then, is to link his outer growth to his inner growth—to sync up his moral knowledge to his acquisition of physical skills and resources. This will go a long way in making your story feel more authentic.

Exercise: Examine one of your stories. Record your hero’s moral strength as well as his physical skills, as measured against the story goal. Go to each pivotal moment in the story—turning point, mid point, etc. How do these twin journeys relate to each narrative twist? How does a defeat in the world affect your hero’s moral growth? Does it lead to a change in perspective that better prepares him to cope with the next challenge? If not, be sure to show the consequences of his failure. Do this for every major action your hero undertakes. Your story will feel more authentic for it.

Summary

Coordinate your hero’s two lives in order to help authenticate his actions.

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Characterising details – what are they?

Book cover of a nook which contains a chapter on characterising details.
Characterising details—an essential part of a writer’s toolkit.

Characterising details do not only provide important facts about story characters, they grant insight into their traits through a show-don’t-tell technique.


In her chapter, CHARACTER OBJECTIVE AND CONFLICT (Creating Characters: The complete Guide to Populating your Fiction), Mary Kole defines characterising detail as “[a] multilayered piece of information or action that teaches us something deep-seated about a character.”

Height and hair colour are usually not significant details. Far better are small but telling actions that tell us something hidden about a character.

Someone who drops a sweet on the ground, looks left and right to see if he’s being watched, then picks it up and surreptitiously pops it into his mouth, does tell us something significant about that character: that he so compulsively loves sweets that he’s willing to eat germs off the ground to reacquire them, and that he is ashamed or embarrassed by his action. Importantly, it does it through the show-don’t-tell technique, making it a more rewarding reading experience.

“Characterising details are snippets of telling action that shed light on a character’s hidden traits.”

Place descriptions, too, may serve to characterise through a similar technique.

“The house was in desperate need of repair. The floors were damaged and caked with grime and dirt, the wall plaster was peeling, the ceilings were descending into the rooms like great arching sheets of cloth. There was a lot of work to be done and not a lot of time to do it in.”

This is not a bad description, but here’s a better one:

“Matthew studied the shell of the house. He’d have to start right away if he were to have it ready before she arrived—rip down the damaged ceilings, replaster a good portion of the walls, sand down the wooden floors and fit in new boards to replace those destroyed by termites. Finally, he’d have to paint and varnish the whole catastrophe. And all this in a week. With no money. It was an impossible task, but that, of course, was what Matthew did. Pursue impossible tasks. Like impressing an impossibly beautiful girl who had ignored him for a year.”

This passage is more effective because it not only puts us in the head of the character, it shows us something about his grit, drive and objective, too: to try and win the attention of a beautiful girl who doesn’t know he’s alive.

Exercise: Find a passage in your own writing that describes the motivation of a character. Does the description contain superfluous details that leave the reader un-engaged? Replace them with detailed actions that characterised through the show-don’t-tell technique.

Summary

Characterising details are snippets of telling information, usually revealed through action, that tell us something important about a character