Clarity and precision

0_hor_treerootsA story is about emotion, not facts

It’s easy for a great idea to turn into a spaghetti junction of ideas. Tendrils of stories branch out and multiply. Characters take over. What you thought might be a simple story because a muddy, mix. 

One way I combat this as a substantive editor, is for each story tendril, I ask this question:

Does  the reader really need to feel this?

It may be gorgeous writing. It may even be fascinating. And yet, if it doesn’t develop the progress of the story, it distracts the reader. Distracted readers don’t turn pages, they put the book down.

Your goal is to place your reader into the emotional world of the character. The words you choose need to serve that function.

Take a look at this example and try to determine the primary mood the author is trying to set:

“…not unlike my closet, is in various degrees of disassembly and disarray. Post-it notes frame my computer screen, and tumbling stacks of paper cascade over one another and on top of pens, pencils, and stock photography, all of which neck their way close to my keyboard, which sits atop the only free space on my desk. Josie delicately displaces two tote bags that are clogged with freebies from potential clients from the chair opposite my desk and sits.”

This list of visual details scream “I’m overwhelmed!” But in the story, the scene is about the main character landing a major contract for an advertising campaign. Do you see victory in any of those details? I didn’t. 

Now, in this example, look at the precision and variety of senses tapped, how they develop the relationship:

“As we turn the corner, the local bakery is getting its powdered sugar delivered, funneled into the cellar by the barrelful as if it were cement, and we can see nothing but the shadows of the deliverymen in the white, sweet cloud. The street is billowing, and Nick pulls me close and smiles that smile again, and he takes a single lock of my hair between two fingers and runs them all the way to the end, tugging twice, like he’s ringing a bell. His eyelashes are trimmed with powder, and before he leans in, he brushes the sugar from my lips so he can taste me.”

What works so well in this example is that every detail is used for a good emotional reason. We experience the wonder of the sugar cloud, the physical closeness, the brushing of lips, the implied first kiss.

The movie screen of the mind picks up on the double sweetness of the icing sugar cloud. The physical detail of pulling the lock of hair places us in their close embrace. The visual of his eyelashes references a moment earlier, where she could see him as a boy, which adds depth in terms of time. A return to the physical, with the very intimate brushing of her lips so he can taste her. We aren’t told they kiss, it’s implied.

The prior example gives us a lot of detail, too. But the emotional space it creates for us is not nearly as precise, as visceral. We may be in that cubicle, but it speaks of anxiety not victory.

When writing, there are topics that you need to get down, to figure out, explore. Through the draft process, these pieces get distilled to their essence. Others are moved out when they are identified as your writer’s “homework.” That is, the stuff you needed to explore, but isn’t needed for the story’s narrative arc.

So, when I ask myself:

Does  the reader really need to feel this?

I’m looking for how that section places the reader in the emotional skin of the characters.

What’s missing from your story?

Spoilers in here for Gone Girl, The Meaning of Everything and The Circle. 

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The most riveting aspect of some stories is what’s not there.

What would happen if, on the first page of a murder mystery, the author exposed the murderer, how the victim was abducted, tortured and then brutally killed?

Gone would be the experience for the audience to ponder the suspects, to learn inch-by-agonizing inch where the murderer did it, how they did it, and how they tried to get away with it. In other words, there wouldn’t be a mystery at all.

What keeps us reading is the missing information — the things we don’t know. Some things are hinted at but not spelled out, other things just seem odd. Little clues are planted by the writer to keep us guessing, pondering, thinking.

When we’re thinking, we’re engaged and keep turning pages. That’s why murder mysteries are so popular: our brains go click, click, click as we try to figure out who is guilty.

But missing information isn’t just for murder mysteries. All genres, including non-fiction, can benefit from keeping secrets from the audience. In The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, the key contributor of entries politely turns down invitations from the editor to attend events or meet, yet submits volume after volume of beautiful work. Eventually the editor goes to this contributor’s address to thank him in person. At the address is an insane asylum.

Missing information is the striptease of storytelling. It creates tension and surprise. It turns the story in a new direction, or reveals the reason for odd behaviour.

In Gone Girl, Amy has gone missing. Her husband, Nick, tells us that he’s lying to the police, but doesn’t tell us what he is lying about. He admits to having a temper, to hating his wife, and never fully says that he’s innocent. Meanwhile, he has a disposable cell phone that keeps ringing. He doesn’t answer. He wants to throw it out. The missing information: he’s having an affair. He looks guilty because he feels guilty.

In some stories, the secret is not something hidden by a character, but the author. Again in Gone Girl, Amy’s journals are a fiction created by the character, but the reader doesn’t know this. She learned of Nick’s affair and is furious enough to doggedly plot and plan her revenge for months. She creates a journal that leaves a trail of clues that show her as the good guy and Nick as an angry, brutal husband. As we continue to read years of faked entries, we grow to like this fictional Amy, even if there are aspects that seem a little too perfect or a tad too cliche. Half way through the book her ruse is revealed and we meet the very sick puppy that Amy is. Someone capable of knifing herself so she bleeds until she’s faint, who plans on killing herself to enact her revenge.

The biggest piece of missing information a storyteller can create (methinks) is to serve us the bad guy as the good guy. When we discover the truth, it turns our world upside down. We’re forced to revisit all that has come before, click, click, click. It’s a trend I’ve noticed in a few novels of late.

In The Circle, for example, Mae is established as the protagonist, hired by a Google-like conglomerate in a low-level job. At first she struggles in her new role. But as the story progresses and she buys into the company’s mantra to the point of turning in friends, we realize that perhaps she isn’t the one we should be rooting for.

Turning your protagonist into the antagonist is a ginormous leap to take. You don’t need to go that far unless you have a good reason.

What skeletons are rattling in the closet?

Other opportunities for missing information lie in the shameful fact a character wants to keep hidden, until…. The person your character doesn’t want to face because…  An unsavoury ambition, such as Amy’s goal of seeing her husband fry… A secret from long ago never shared, such as a child who was given away… A vice they’re trying to hide, such as drugs, smoking or pornography. That uncle who drinks too much and then gets in his truck as everyone in the family looks the other way. The death (or other event) that didn’t happen exactly as now told. An object with a significance never shared. Something that didn’t happen, but was very much wanted, such as the pregnancy in, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?

Look for it in positive emotions as well as bad ones. A character can be hoping for something to happen in the future, such as someone to return from the past. Do remember that a key theme of many fairy tales: Be careful what you wish for.

Your job as writer is to slowly peel away the secrets, layer by layer. To give your audience a striptease that makes them wonder what’s next, what’s real, what’s not? To yearn for more. To make them think.

The question to ask yourself: How far will my character go until they are forced to reveal their secret? Then, take the character to that place, because that’s the writer’s job.

What they don’t want

In playing a scene, an actor will ask herself, “what do I want?” That is, what does her character want from the other person in this scene?

Do I want this man to be my seducer? My victim? My best pal? What do I want to hear the other people in the scene say and why? Am I looking for flattery or confirmation? What are my goals?

Do I want to get married? Do I want the job? Do I want to see him suffer?

What a character wants helps the actor to determine the tactics they’ll use to get what they want. Are they flirty, firm or fidgety? Forceful, flowery or fretful?

It sounds all very manipulative, doesn’t it? And yes, it is. But come on, you do it, too. Sometimes without realizing it, you’ll be a bit more pouty than you need to be when declaring a case, or a bit more effervescent when faced with someone you fancy.

From a writing/acting perspective, thinking about a character’s wants helps you inject action into the scene. If a character has a goal, they aren’t going to sit there picking at their cuticles waiting for their life to change. They will do something. Actions betray their true desires, words don’t.

But what your characters don’t want can be just as, if not more, important to figuring out long-term motivations. I’d argue that their hopes for the future are bound up more with what they don’t want than what they do want.

Look to your own future. You don’t know what it holds. You can imagine, yes, but you don’t know for sure if the goal you’re striving for will satisfy you. You think you do. But at the same time, one thing you do know is, you don’t want to be…

  • a cubicle worker for the rest of your life
  • drunk every night like your mother
  • alone in the world
  • (insert your own or your character’s fear here)

In some ways, it is as though we head into the future running backwards, terrified of becoming one of those train wrecks we see spinning into the background as we hurl ourselves through time.

Just as in life, your characters are struggling to release themselves from something. So, in trying to figure out what they want from the future, try to consider what they are trying not to be, just as much as what they hope to be.

Stories are the means we use to “get away,” or escape. They are filled with characters trying to release themselves from a fate, a situation, a struggle.

A tragedy is a story where the hero discovers that what she thought she wanted comes at a price higher than she was willing to pay. She may think she wants to be queen, to discover the criminal who killed her father, or that she wants her son to demonstrate his love. She can taste what this satisfaction will be like with absolute certainty. She looks forward to it, fights for it at every turn. Consider, if you will, Macbeth, Oedipus, King Lear.

Modern stories tend to morality tales where the hero always wins. They ‘win’ the throne, put the criminal behind bars, and the son buys her a mansion in the country. It is as though we need the happy ending because of… what?

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How plot works

Sahara. Camels.

There are two ways to look at your story: Up close and  far away. Magnified and in landscape.

MAGNIFIED:  The words on the page.

LANDSCAPE:  The arc of the story and the points that get you there.

The landscape view is what plot is all about.

The mechanics of plot
A plot timeline look like this:

 beginning. middle. end.

  • He came. He saw. He conquered.
  • Boy gets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back.
  • Beginning. Middle. End.

Each section has a purpose. If you’re like me and get lost in the moment to moment of your stories, understanding the purpose of each section will help you differentiate between essential scenes and fluff.

beginning  } introduction

middle } development

end } resolution.

Notice the frames which enclose these three parts? There are four of them, right?

The frame of 3=4

These ‘frames’ are your writing tools.

The parts
The five mechanical parts of a plot are:

  • Inciting Incident (ii)
  • First Climax (I)
  • Midpoint
  • Second Climax (II)
  • Third Climax (III)

You may know the term ‘climax’ under a different name: ‘Turning point’, ‘Plot point’. They’re the same thing. Use the term you feel most comfortable with.

Let’s take a look at the characteristics of each.

Inciting Incident (ii):
The event that incites the action of the story. The catalyst that sets the question or engine of the story, in motion.

Examples:

  1. Aunt Mary, who lives two thousand miles away, walks in your door, plops down her bags and says “I’m moving in,” and that’s when it all begins.
  2. Romeo & Juliet:  Those Montague boys crash the Capulet party.
  3. Star Wars: Princes Leia places her request with the droids.
  4. Wizard of Oz: The neighbourhood witch takes the dog away, but the dog breaks loose and comes back as a tornado wreaks havoc.
  5. Blindness:  A motorist instantly and inexplicably becomes blind and causes an accident (Saramago’s Nobel Prize winning book of 1997).

In film there’s a rule that the inciting incident has to appear in the first twelve minutes. For thrillers it comes in the first scene: a bomb explodes, secret documents are stolen, someone is murdered…

Until the inciting incident happens the audience doesn’t know what the story is about.

Climax: A general definition
The good guy and the bad guy (protagonist versus antagonist) have a stand-off. The result: win, lose draw. 

As a result something happens. The story spins in a new direction. 

First Climax: a decision
In the first climax, the main character has her first run in with the antagonist. She makes a decision that commits her to the story until the end.

  • Star Wars: Luke finds his aunt and uncle dead, he decides to join the rebel forces.
  • The Crying Game: Fergus can’t kill the British Soldier and lets him go.
  • Romeo & Juliet: They’re getting married!
  • You decide that Aunt Mary can have the spare room for as long as she needs.

The decision is not announced, it’s shown through action. The decision your character makes and the actions that follow reveal something about their character.

When Luke discovers his dead uncle and aunt he could have crawled into a bar and ordered a beer, or he could take action. Because he decided to join the rebel forces, it reveals something about his character. If he chose the bar route it would have revealed something else.

With the decision the character is committing themselves to the story. The only way out of their commitment is to go through the rest of the story.

With Luke, he’s leaving his planet and is  on a ship travelling across the galaxy. Try and get out of that easily.

The first climax occurs one third of the way into your story. In a feature film it’s about 30 minutes in. Next time you watch a movie, see if you can find this point.

Another characteristic of this climax, it sets up the action for the second act.

In the case of Aunt Mary, suddenly she’s moving in. A truck shows up at your door with all of her furniture, she’s doing yoga in the living room and serving wine to your children at dinner. In other words, she’s turned your world upside down. Mayhem ensues.

The second act

From the first climax to the second is the hardest part to write. If the first act is getting your character up a tree, the second act is throwing rocks at them. By “rocks” I mean the little complications that are forcing them to get what they want. Relationships are developing and changing in little steps.

In an overcoming the monster story, this is when our hero is travelling to meet the monster, learning as she goes.

In a romance, this is the back and forth of wanting and not wanting, dating and misinterpreted actions.

All of the steps lead to the…

The midpoint: I hadn’t thought of that!

A sideways barrel roll of the roller coaster is an apt metaphor for the midpoint. The antagonist is not present, but something happens that skews the story in some way. The midpoint provides a change in pace and often causes your main character to look at their situation from a new perspective.

In many story types, new information shows up or old information resurfaces and it changes everything.

In a murder mystery, perhaps a small fact leads the detective to think in a different way. In a voyage and return story our heroes race toward what they think is the doorway out, but it’s a dead end. In a romance, the girl is about to give up on the relationship when she learns something (old or new) about the guy, and it turns her attitude around. Or a character is reminded of a past event, and it changes everything.

Midpoints are sometimes non-events pretending to be events. In a quest story, the adventurers survive a waterfall. In a horror story, a rumbling in a closet turns out to be a kitten.

There is only one thing story geeks can agree on regarding midpoints: They happen in the middle.

Second climax: deep doo-doo
At the second climax your main character battles the antagonist and either loses or the result is a draw. Why? Because if they win the story is over.

Stories are, in essence, about transformation. Your character has to change by the end. It is in the second climax where they try to win but can’t because they haven’t quite changed enough.

As a result of this battle, they realize that they need to change their approach the situation. Through this shift, they grow and change. 

In Star Wars, Obi Wan Kenobe dies, our heroes escape the Death Star, but just barely. Romeo is misinformed, told that Juliet is dead and he returns from Padua.

Third climax
The hero fights the final battle and wins or loses. If it’s a comedy or morality tale, the hero wins. If it’s a tragedy, they lose.

For all stories, the third climax unravels the story. Luke destroys the Death Star, Romeo dies; You start taking Aunty Mary’s yoga classes.

A correction
I need to make a correction to the graphs I used above.

plot

The purple line is a timeline. The green boxes show the placement of the inciting incident and climaxes. The black line is the action. Note how the action falls slightly after a climax before you enter the next section of the story. Roller coaster!

Also note the proportional differences between beginning – middle – end. In a movie, the beginning (first act) is 30 minutes; the middle (second act) 40 minutes; the end (third act) is not over 20 minutes. This is formula. But a very flexible formula.

Next time you go to a movie, time it. See if you can figure out the different plot points. Doing this with each story you encounter will help you to find these story components in your own work.

How to use this knowledge
Figuring out plot points takes practice, especially with your own work. And even harder if your struggle isn’t good guy v. bad guy. Don’t sweat it. This is a tool. It gives you a different way to look at your story. The more you use the tool the more useful it will become.

"Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself." - Truman Capote

"It's not wise to violate the rules until you know how to observe them." - T.S. Eliot

Writing in Images

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“I don’t see him as evil.”

The writer looked at me in dismay. “But it’s in here,” he said, returning to his pages. “Look here where the character says…”

The project: Television pilot.

The problem: Words, words, words.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the words on the page. Those are our tools, right?

But whether you’re talking film, theatre, fiction or non-fiction, it’s not the words on the page that really count. It’s the story the audience takes away that matters. What they experience. And the most powerful way to tell a story is through images.

You want to make someone in power seem evil? Show them in silhouette or from above looking down. Show them smiling after something bad happens.

You want a couple in love? Show them interrupt a task to touch or kiss each other.

A few examples:

“They skirted the northern rim of the town. No one was abroad at this nearly midnight hour, and nothing was open except a string of desolately brilliant service stations.” In Cold Blood, Truman Capote

With few words, Capote captures something familiar and shows it for what it is. Haven’t we all seen those strip malls, the asphalt swamp of parking lots before them, the lights blaring?

“She is thin, and her polka-dot dress is too large. She is clutching the baby and the suitcase as though she were continuously counting them.” The MisfitsArthur Miller.

Miller gives us both an image of the woman and a wonderful characterization. He doesn’t tell her she is anxious, she shows us.

“I see him, ashen, lost inside his clothes, and always, like me now, with a three-day stubble, moving wraithlike without sound through rooms gaunt with summer’s stillness, a stooped figure flickering trace of his passing save a sort of shimmer, a fold in the air, and a coiling question-mark of cigarette smoke.” Eclipse, John Banville

I love Banville for how he packs images into his writing. In this very long (overly?) sentence, we are shown a very thin man. We aren’t told he’s skinny. He is, “lost inside his clothes,” and that his passing by is evidenced by “a fold in the air.”  We aren’t told he smokes. We are shown “a coiling question-mark of cigarette smoke.”

In his book Stein on Writing, Sol Stein suggests a piece of fiction needs at least one visual on every page. When reviewing a draft he recommends you place a “v” in the margin of every page that has a visual so you can go back and find the pages that are missing a visual.

Readers want to experience writing, not be told about it. They want to make up their own minds, not be told how to interpret. Focusing on images gets you to move from telling to showing.

How much is too much?

As much as I love Banville for his dense use of images, I sometimes wonder if his writing is overworked to the point where style gets in the way of the story. In fact, it becomes the story.

If you’re not writing in images, give it a try. In doing so, you’ll heighten the impact of your writing and find your own balance.

 

Making friends with monsters

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Who likes conflict? It’s so darned uncomfortable. Full of raised voices, tears, harsh words, exasperation, confusion. Who hasn’t tip toed past a door to avoid such nastiness?

Thing is, the very thing we all try to avoid every day is the meat of story telling.

When a writer is struggling with conflict it manifests in the work in one of these ways:

  1. No conflict – high realism style. Characters talk, scenes are described, but nothing happens.
  2. No conflict – perfect-world style. The perfect character jumps from one victory to the next. Readers yawn in disbelief.
  3. Too much conflict – the sky is falling. The sky is falling! Repeatedly. But the falling sky never has an impact on the world in a way that you’d expect.
  4. Too much conflict – it’s not my fault. The main character is a victim who has no responsibility for anything in the story because they never do anything, other than sniffled and moan and whine.

I’m being hyperbolic here, of course, for the purpose of highlighting.

The most common form of this I see in manuscripts is 1) as it masks quite well as “stream of consciousness” writing. But a story without the shaping afforded by conflict is not a story; it’s a bunch of meandering words on a page.

So, how can you make conflict your friend and make your protagonists suffer the way people want them to in stories?

At a story-wide level, start by looking for the monsters under your very own bed.

In Going Sane, Adam Phillips wonders if creating art involves packaging things we find difficult to face in a form that is somehow reassuring. Taking monsters and making them something we can face.

When a writer is successful, stories allow the audience to practice facing conflicts in real life, making them more manageable somehow. Phillips summarizes the famous essayist Charles Lamb on this, which I’ll quote here:

“The sane genius transforms everything that might disturb us, “the wildest dreams,” into something that is familiar and reassuring. It is his artfulness that makes us feel at home; it is the weak writer who makes us feel estranged, or baffled, or lost.”

How can you use this? 

For the story you are writing now ask yourself: What is it about this situation that I am frightened of and need to face?

Poke around in the idea of your story and look for the things that terrify you. Or those things that make you feel shameful. Perhaps you are trying to figure out a past relationship, or to figure out how to handle some aspect of your personality.

Your purpose isn’t to look at the struggle and become its victim. It’s to put on some galoshes and walk through the swamp of terror so you can figure out what facing this challenge means for getting through life. In other words, how can you find your way through the swamp as a hero who grows and changes?

What if your story is a tragedy? Then your tragic hero will put on galoshes, but some fatal flaw will have them make bad decisions with each step. In Woody Allen’s recent movie Blue Jasmine, for example, Jasmine is thrown into the gaping abyss and because she fails to admit she has any responsibility for where she is and what has happened to people around her, she keeps falling and falling and falling. A riveting and terrifying descent.

Once you understand the monster you are struggling with, you have the tools to figure out the plot points of your story. But that’s another post.

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing

Rhythm. Energy. It’s in everything we do. As an artist, part of your job is to create energy. To shift the mood of your audience from wherever they are in their real lives to where you want them to be. And it better be someplace special, or who will want to stick around?

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Ai Weiwei

Visual artists do this with colour and shape and ideas and how these components flow together. They take the familiar and turn it upside down or backwards so we can see it in a new light. For example, Ai Weiwei creating what looks like an ancient ceramic urn bearing the Coca-Cola logo.

When a rock star steps onto the stage, their job is to create energy. Their tools include instrumentation, poetic phrases, dance and encouragement. If they do their job well, we wind up singing across the abyss in bliss with them.

Writers create worlds with words. By careful selection, sentence length, point of view of the writing and characters, we create a swirl of a journey.

When done well, the audience is so caught up, the medium disappears. We’re not looking at an urn, we’re turning our thoughts to how advertising has taken over the world. We’re not at a concert, we’re Walking on the Milky Way. We’re not sitting on the couch reading, we’re fighting dragons in Middle Earth.

We become invested in a two-way, collaborative process, where we are as actively involved in creating meaning for ourselves as the artist was in creating the work. The reward is a pleasure that is most intimate, as if our souls are rewritten and joined together through participation. We feel ourselves open up and see the world afresh.

The act of creation is indeed magical, isn’t it? To start with nothing more than a thought and wind it up into an energy that people recognize. It’s an amazing power; to make people feel something; to bring them into a world of our own making. Nothing is more powerful than that. I call it, “making like a god,” because artists create something out of nothing more than thoughts.

But how does a writer get there?

In creative writing workshops a piece of writing is put on the table and participants dissect what they like/don’t like, believe/don’t believe about it. This teaches writers to dissect their work, not build on it. I’ve got a problem with that.

One of my favourite books on writing is called “How Not to Write a Play,” by Walter Kerr. A key theme of this book:  “the critic dissects, the artist unifies,” and it couldn’t be more apt for would-be writers. Kerr speaks of writing by touch, of how to explore your ideas while keeping your analytical brain at bay until it’s needed.

I find this idea really interesting, particularly in light of recent brain research (Watch the BBC’s The Creative Brain How Insight Works). Apparently, when jazz musicians are improvising, they turn off portions of the pre-frontal lobe of their brain — the bit that controls planning and strategizing. It is also the part that makes us self-conscious, forcing us to control our behaviour.

To shut off the analytical brain and write by touch, you need to find a process that allows you to let your imagination drift without judgement. As many writers put it, it is very much like an archeological dig, where you are trying to uncover ancient gems inside you. As W.H. Auden put it:

“A poet writes ‘The chestnut’s comfortable root’ and then changes this to ‘The chestnut’s customary root.’ In this alteration there is no question of replacing one emotion by another, or of strengthening an emotion, but of discovering what the emotion is. The emotion is unchanged, but waiting to be identified like a telephone number one cannot remember. ‘8357. No, that’s not it. 8557. 8457, no, it’s on the tip of my tongue, wait a minute, I’ve got it, 8657. That’s it'”

Auden uses ’emotion,’ I prefer ‘energy’ — because it implies something physical as opposed to internal. Emotion sucks you in, while movement is emotion realized.

Some Tools

To prompt uncovering, I suggest turning to the tools of the method actor.  Here’s a few:

  • Artist’s journal: Big ideas usually start with small and specific images. As you come across examples that demonstrate the texture and timber of life, jot them down. The vacant smile of the sales clerk. The mother’s glance to her daughter, full of love. The flash of anger on the bus driver’s face. The young girl playing lazily in the sand on the beach. The body tension of someone caught in a lie. All of it fodder for characters, moments, exchanges.
  • Music: Do you write while listening to music? Make sure it’s helping you, not standing in your way. Lyrics can  impose language and rhythms into your writing, even if you’re not aware of it. So, choose well. On the other hand, music can help you find energy.  Writing a death scene? Maybe a requiem mass will help. A happy scene? Put on a boppy song that makes you want to move. How can you capture that energy and put it on the page?
  • Play dress up: Find a piece of clothing that puts you in the role you are writing. Look at yourself in the mirror. Feel the texture of the fabric. Smell. How can you use that clothing? Is it getting in the way but the character insists on wearing it?
  • Play act: If you’re in costume, you might as well take it all the way. Imagine yourself in the scene, as if you’re playing to a camera. Play all of the characters, one at a time or all at the same time. Move as they would need to move. Imagine the room where they are. What are the smells? What moments of poignancy do you find? What are the moods of the other people? What actions communicate their moods?
  • Breathe: Breathe? Yes, breathe. As all actors and singers know, the breath impacts emotion. So, let’s say you’re writing a scene about a car chase. Breathing fast and low can help you to get closer to where the character’s emotional world would be. How about a sensuous sex scene? Breathe deep and slowly now as my fingers play with the hairs at the nape of your neck.

Oh, excuse me. Ahem. (straightens her clothing)

  • Pictures: Look for images that get across the mood you want to create. Paste them on the wall or carry them in a folder and flip through them.
  • Write: Create a diary of what life is like for your character for a few normal, boring days. What is bothering them, making them feel insecure? What are their joys? Or write a monologue about an important time from their history that has impacted their character. Perhaps it was a terrifying encounter with a snake or the most joyful moment of their life so far.
  • Read it aloud: When you’re finished writing something, stand up and read it aloud. Feel the rhythms of the dialogue, the flows of description. Pay attention to how it makes you feel. Are you caught up, or are you bored? Make notes as you go, revise, print, stand up and do it again.
  • Research: All of what I’ve talked about here could be termed ‘research.’ But to be a bit more academic, you might want to read a book on a topic, or at least Google it. Walk the street where you imagine a scene taking place. Note the cracks in the sidewalk, the sounds, the smells.

 Method madness

Tools like these help actors get under the skin of their characters. To really ‘be’ their characters. To find the energy for the moment at hand. The closer you can get yourself in that energy, the more likely you’ll re-create it on the page. Little details you find in your energy search can become powerful metaphors, or rhythms that can affect how your audience feels. They make your work more real, on an emotional level. And that’s what it’s all about.

Now, this is not to say that using your analytical brain isn’t an important part of the process. But at the wrong point, it can kill creative energy rather than build on it.

Always remember, you are creating a ride of energy for your audience. Don’t pick. Make like a god and create something powerful out of nothing but words.

Do you have an energy search tool that I’ve missed? I’d love to hear it. Leave a comment.

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In the grand theme of things

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If a story is merely a collection of events told in sequential order we’d all be novelists and screen writers. But that just ain’t so.

A well told story captures our collective imagination, wins our hearts, changes minds and introduces us to characters we fall in love with or fear (and all those emotions in between).

As writers, isn’t that what we strive for? But how do we get ‘there’?

Hold that question and bear with me for a moment. I promise not to growl or maul you.

When a reader opens a novel to that first page, they are looking for something to connect with. That is, they want to see something of themselves reflected the pages.

If they wanted to meet a someone who waxes poetical about themselves for hours on end, they’d go to a party, a bar, or join some kind of group. Who among us hasn’t listened to a friend’s opera about… the latest boyfriend who dumped them, the reason they’re not a superstar, how well ‘designed’ their life is, the trivia of their days or pets.

But walking into the arms of a story is something we do for ourselves, not the good of humanity.

You or your character may have an interesting life, but that alone will not feed your readers. They need sustenance. Something in it for them. (Because enjoying a story really is a selfish activity, isn’t it?).

So, how does the writer get ‘there’? Through that writing tool known as ‘universal theme.’

The universal theme is the thing that everyone can connect to. The glue that holds your story together, because everyone can see themselves reflected there. It’s what your story is ‘about’ under the surface of events. It’s what takes all of those events and gives them meaning.

A writer doesn’t just select a theme and write about it (unless it’s really obvious, like in action thrillers or murder mysteries). It comes out of that digging you do as you first begin writing. It is like an uncovering process, searching for that special nugget of glue that will hold your story together. Once found, it serves as a tool to make decisions about what stays and what goes. What to emphasize, what to gloss over.

The place to look for your theme is in the struggle of the main character.

What’s your struggle?

A story about a woman fretting over ending her marriage may be struggling with:

  • How much of a life is worth sacrificing for the sake of the family?
  • What exactly is abusive behaviour? Where is the line drawn between abuse and character traits

A person who loses all of their family in a car crash may struggle with:

  • How do we learn to live with what we can never come to terms with?

Someone lying in a hospital waiting to die might struggle with:

  • What does it mean to live?
  • What does it mean to live a life that matters?
  • What is a ‘good death’?

A man who meets the love of his life online, and after years of messaging, talking and netsex finally meets her to discover she is truly ugly (and not at all like her photos). He might be struggling with:

  • What is beauty, really?

Notice how the words ‘I,’ ‘me,’ or ‘my’ are not in there (e.g., is my husband an abuser?). This is important, because by stating the struggle in universal terms, you take the question out of the character’s corner. Your character’s struggle must be experienced looking out, not in.

A universal theme is one that is timeless and all people can relate to. It is about the challenge of being stuck in a body and  having to relate to people and the world around us. In other words, being human. That is why it’s ‘universal.’ The more universal your theme, the broader the reach of your work. It means the difference between words strung together and the work of an artist.

A theme is a frame (or a filter, or a lense) that allows you to look at an individual scene and ask yourself, “How is this interaction an exploration of my theme?” If the scene has no relation to the theme, either you need to revise it or out it goes.

A theme also handily keeps your characters out of self pity or self loathing. It gives them a way to look out at the world, not at their navals. The point is to find the meaning of the struggle, not to indulge in it.

Now, keep in mind that your character may not be conscious of the universality of their struggle. In fact, that can be part of the story! Say, when a person’s obsessions or drug of choice is ruining their life or the lives of those around them.

The first theme you uncover may not be the one that works for your story. It can take some trial and error to figure it out. But when you do find it you’ll know it. It’ll ping at you. Suddenly, your work and all of the individual scenes will make sense. You’ll know what is detritus and where to look for gold. You know what else? It will also give your story a great chance of reaching into your reader’s hearts and taking them on a thrilling ride.

Eight prescriptions for getting naked

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Writing is about reaching into our emotional selves and being honest; ‘getting naked,’ if you will. But so many of us have integrated the ‘stiff upper lip’ lessons of the world a bit too well to get naked easily.

Hey, I’m not embarrassed to say that I’m one of those. I need tools to help me get intimate with what I’m writing.

Prescriptions I’ve used for getting naked with a scene:*

  1. Senses: What are the smells, textures. Allow these to help you put yourself in your character’s shoes.
  2. Think visual: Write about what the room looks like. Even better, look for images that communicate the feeling you are trying to create.
  3. Find auditory inspiration: Think of a song that has the feel you want to create for the scene you are writing. Put it on and dance around the room or moan with the music. Consider the lyrics.
  4. Make your characters uncomfortable: Suffering from cramps, sneezing, stomach upset, headache. When irritable we either hide or show emotions more. Allow a character to take out their pain on the world around them, or hide it and close up like a clam.
  5. Use metaphor: Consider what the scene is metaphorically about. Is it about a couple breaking up? Perhaps something physical breaks, too. Are the character hiding things from each other? Maybe the lights go out or the room is dark.
  6. Write differently: For your first draft, try writing in long hand and not on a computer. This will allow you to throw ideas out more casually. You can doodle. You can arrange words visually on the page – one character’s words in one corner, another character’s in another.
  7. 2″ picture frame: Take Anne Lammott’s advice. That is, you don’t have to write the whole thing in one go. All you need to concentrate on when you’re writing is the next 2 sentences. That is, a 2″ picture frame. One meaningful moment.
  8. Shitty first drafts: What you write down the first time is not final. This is another Anne Lammott lesson: write a shitty first draft remembering that you’re going to come back. Great advice to follow, because editing is easier (and more fun) than writing a first draft. You can feel freer knowing that you’re coming back.

Scratch and peck at what you write down until you find the kernel that feels right. You’ll feel a ping. You’ll see it and know it’s absolutely right. When you get there, hold onto it tight and run.

* I call writing chunks scenes. They may be in a book, in a play, in a screenplay, but I still call them scenes. How do you know when a scene starts and ends? You just do. It’s the beat of the thing, right?

Prepare to write like an actor

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When an actor prepares to play a role, she doesn’t only memorize her lines and reach into her schtick bag for an accent and wig. Creating a layered character requires getting under the skin of her character. To do this she might:

  1. Learn as much as possible about the time the story is set. What it looked like, smelled like. The kinds of jargon people used.
  2. Imagine the character’s personal history. Who were her parents and what kind of relationship did they have? Who were her friends and why were they her friends? What does she do when she’s alone?
  3. Write journals about scenes not in the play or movie to learn more about the character. Take an important moment and write a stream-of-consciousness monologue that follows her thoughts moment by moment.
  4. Find a piece of music that communicates the character’s rhythm. The music becomes the character’s theme that the actor plays on her iPod in preparation for playing a scene.
  5. Work on the character’s movement patterns. Work from the breath and find how the character holds herself, speaks and tosses the hair out of her eyes.
  6. Study not just the lines, but what lies under them

The actor may fill a notebook to brimming with notes and scratching and doodles. She may create an altar where she gathers images that relate to her character. Every dialogue exchange may have alternate meanings that she works through over and over.

The idea of this work is not to put on the character, but to live the character. To be the character. To feel inside the skin of the character.

This preparation work becomes like the tea bag, the actor the teapot full of water. The richer and more varied the tea, the more layered the performance.

If this work is done well, when the actor steps on the stage the audience sees a lot more than a person reading a bunch of lines. They feel the presence of a fully realized character. They feel it in vocal intonations, how the actor moves, the gleam in their eye. Even a raised eye brow at the right moment can speak volumes.

Because it really is like making a tea, the prep work doesn’t last in the actor for long. Like any tea, it gets cold and old and eventually evaporates into the air. It can be brought back, but it’s not like snapping fingers. The steeping process needs to begin again.

I have come to believe that writing works in a similar way. When you are truly writing the character, the words come from a special place. When your readers take in the words on the page, there’s something else that comes through. Your readers can sense the tilt of the head, the look in the eye, feel the breath moving in and out.