Showing posts with label Dwight V Swain. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dwight V Swain. Show all posts

Thursday, March 25

How to Write a Genre Story: A Character's Dominant Attitude

I’ve already gone over Swain’s idea of a character’s dominant impression, now let’s talk about their dominant attitude.

A character’s attitude

“Attitude is a matter of behavior patterns—a character’s habitual way of reacting to a particular kind of situation. Mary Poppins’s eternal cheeriness reflects an attitude, and so does Rambo’s macho stance.” (Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, Dwight V. Swain) 

Other examples of attitudes: sanctimony, ingrained suspicion, anxiety, discontent, and so on.

Like flesh and blood people, a character has more than one attitude. For example, a character can be both cheerful (like Mary Poppins) and sanctimonious, though at any one time one attitude will be stronger than the other. Overall, though, the character will have one attitude, aptly named the ‘dominant attitude’ that defines the character more than any other. I’ll go over a character's dominant attitude in a moment, but before I do let’s look at some examples.


I was at a party the other day and fell into conversation with someone I knew slightly. This wasn't the first time we'd met, but it was the first time we had a chance to exchange more than awkward pleasantries.

After a minute or so my impression of him was fixed: he was not a person who suffered fools gladly. It was an observation that didn't set me at ease since I was keenly aware that what constitutes a fool in someone's mind can be distressingly relative. Anyway, if he was a character I was writing, that would be his dominant attitude.

Keep in mind that our characters are pseudo-people and so tend to have less subtlety than their flesh-and-blood counterparts. For example, if a character's primary attitude is fearfulness, then that trait, that quality, will find a way to insinuate itself into everything that character does. 

Example 1: Mr. Midgley

If a character--Mr. Midgley--is, say, irascible then he might snap at other characters over minor slights or inconveniences. As a response to this, other characters might gossip about him. This character’s house would be the one school children are gently but firmly steered away from on Halloween. 

An irascible character can be kind or considerate, but there would have to be a reason. It would require an explanation. For example, perhaps one of the neighborhood children--Sarah--reminds him of his estranged daughter and so he has a soft spot for the child. He's sentimental. It's his daughter’s birthday so he bakes his daughter's favorite cookies--chocolate chip with extra chips. Then he sees Sarah creep hesitantly, fearfully, onto his back lawn to retrieve a baseball that has landed in his flowerbed. Something about the sight makes it hard for him to swallow and he wipes his eyes with a tissue. Rather than bawl her out for trespassing he goes out and gives the child a cookie. An unlikely friendship is forged.

Example 2: Monica Geller from Friends

Here's another example, this time from the TV show Friends. I would say that Monica Geller's primary attitude was obsessive compulsiveness when it came to cleaning. Informally, we would call her a neat freak. Everything had to be just so or she'd clean and scrub and rearrange until it was. Monica didn't need a reason to clean, no explanation was required. If she didn't clean up a mess, THAT would require an explanation.

Example 3: Mr. Monk

One last example: Mr. Monk from the TV show Monk. I would say that Mr. Monk's primary attitude was fearfulness. 

Mr. Monk was obsessive compulsive and he had an uncanny knack to remember even the most minute, irrelevant detail about his environment. He was also scared of just about everything. Even milk. Milk! One reason that show was a success was that, in practically every scene, the screenwriters demonstrated Monk's primary characteristic--fearfulness--and tied everything else to it. Then, at the end of nearly every show, the writers had Monk do something that for him was courageous. He had goals he was driven to attain--becoming a detective again, figuring out who killed his wife, protecting a friend--and was temporarily able to overcome his many fears. So, really, the most terrified man in the world was courageous.

Once you've picked a character's dominant attitude it should be reflected in some way in nearly every scene.

The Dominant Attitude

Dwight V. Swain writes, “’ll need to become aware of the special areas of mind and thought that your story brings into focus.

“You can do worse than to term this collective pattern your character’s dominant attitude.” (Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, Dwight V. Swain)

“Thus, in a romance, Female Lead’s dominant attitude very well may center on the way she sees—and, in action, reacts to and behaves towards—men. Are they dominating bullies, like her boss? Frail reeds, in the manner of her hopeless, helpless uncle? Eternal womanizers...? [Are they] [s]hadow images of her boastful, bragging brother?…. Stalwart partners for a lifetime of warmth and peace? (Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, Dwight V. Swain)

In a science fiction story the dominant attitude of the protagonist might be one of ingrained suspicion. In keeping with this attitude he might believe that the human race is doomed to extinction at the hands of an alien race. He feels/thinks that, because of the aliens’ technological superiority, that our only hope is to ‘acquire’ their technology before they have the opportunity to crush us.

In a suspense novel, perhaps the protagonist’s dominant attitude is one of distrust. He looks at his fellow humans either as perpetrators--those who take advantage of others--or victims--those who are taken advantage of by others. Because of this belief he becomes withdrawn, leaves society and goes to live all by himself in the hills.

In a mainstream novel, the protagonist might have the dominant attitude of cheerfulness, she believes that there is good in everyone, even the most hardened murderer. Because of this belief she becomes a psychologist and opens a rehabilitation center for hardened criminals.

So you see the pattern. A character has an attitude which, in conjunction with a belief, contributes to the character having a goal. The conjunction of the attitude with the belief might even suggest a way of achieving the goal. 

Attitudes and beliefs

Above, I’ve mentioned a belief. 

I haven’t written much about what this belief is, where it enters into things. It seems as though the belief encompasses that character's view of what the best way to live one’s life is. Perhaps the character’s attitude stems from this belief, or perhaps the belief is a result of their attitude. Who knows!

In my last example the belief (or worldview) the protagonist had was that, "Good is in everyone," and the course of action she took based on that view was to get a degree in psychology and open a rehabilitation center.

Dominant Attitude and Theme

At some point I would like to write a blog post about a story’s theme, what it is and its importance to making a story riveting. It seems to me that a character’s dominant attitude would tie them into the theme of the story, or--to put it another way--set the theme of the story. I need to think about that some more. 

That’s it! As always, I’d love to know your thoughts. 😀

Good writing. I’ll talk to you on Monday.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward
Instagram: @KarenWoodwardWriter
YouTube: The Writer's Craft

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Monday, March 22

How to Write a Genre Story: Dwight V. Swain and the Dominant Impression

How to Write a Genre Story: Dwight V. Swain and the Dominant Impression


"A tag is a label, but a limited, specialized label. It identifies a character and helps your readers distinguish one story person from another." (Dwight V. Swain, Creating Characters: How To Build Story People) 

Tags or labels are important because they are a practical, concrete way of making a character memorable.  

In my last post I introduced the idea of a character tag or label. In this post I would like to look at this through the lens of what Dwight V. Swain has to say about what he calls a character's Dominant Impression. (In my next post I'll take a look at a character's Dominant Attitude.) In the following I’ve drawn from Dwight V. Swain’s excellent book, Creating Characters as well as Jim Butcher’s Livejournal posts.

(Here’s a link to an index I put together for Butcher’s posts about writing: Jim Butcher On Writing.)

Dominant Impression

One of the most effective ways of using tags or labels is through formulating a dominant impression for each character. In this post I'm going to go over what a dominant impression is and how it achieves its effect.

Swain tells us that a character’s dominant impression is made up of her gender, age, vocation and manner. Since the importance of a character's gender and age are obvious, I will only go over vocation and manner.

Noun of Vocation

The noun of vocation is the one word that best describes either what the character does or how they define themselves. Swain writes that the noun of vocation should communicate the character’s occupation as well as their role in society. For example, “server” or “artist.” 

The noun of vocation isn’t necessarily what a person does for a living. Many people define themselves by their skills AND their passions and not just in terms of what they do to earn a living. For example, a struggling actor who doesn’t yet make enough to pay the rent may pay rent by being a server, but they think about themselves as an actor. Or not. It’s up to you and what you want to say about the character.

A tag is like a shorthand for something else. “His eyes were a shade of blue that made me think of bones bleached by the sun.” In this example, light blue eyes would be a tag. For a tag to be of use, though, it needs to be unique to your character (I’ve written about this in my last post). 

Defining our terms: tags or labels

Before we get too far along I want to talk about how I’m using the word “tag” or “label.”

Each tag--and a character’s gender, age, vocation and manner are all tags--identify a character uniquely. Swain uses Kojak as an example; that character's tags were his ever present lollipop and his shaved head.

A tag as an object or characteristic

A tag can be something like an object that is always--or very nearly always--associated with them. For example, in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files series, Harry Dresden’s black duster or his rune carved staff. Or, as I just mentioned, it can be the color of a character’s eyes, as long as it is unusual and unique.

A tag as a disposition

A tag can also be something one can’t see, something more like a disposition. Think of love. You can get into an argument with someone you love and want to strangle them. Perhaps you even berate yourself for thinking that going out with them that first time was a good idea! But you haven’t really fallen out of love with them, you’ve just had a spat. Love is a disposition. It is something that is there through the lows as well as the highs. 

Another example: Sherlock Holmes hated to be bored, that was a disposition. We can see instances of him being bored, but we can't see the disposition itself.

Dispositions can be called to mind through the use of tags. For instance, the needle Sherlock Holmes used to inject his seven percent solution of cocaine could be used as a tag. In the beginning of a story we might find Sherlock resting in his favorite chair with a syringe lying on the table next to him. That one image, even though static, would give the reader a lot of information about the current state of the character.

Okay, onward!

Adjective of Manner

Dwight V. Swain writes that the adjective of manner is, “ individual’s personal bearing; his or her habitual stance and style.” For example, if I describe someone (this is Swain’s example) as “loud and pushy” this conveys a lot of information about their personality. This is the sort of character description we want. Yes, it’s important to let the reader know the color of a character’s hair and eyes, and so on, but summing up their essential character quickly and memorably is more important.

Another thing to note is that adjectives of manner are dispositions, which is the second kind of tag I wrote about, above.

Dominant Impression: Summary

Putting this together, let’s combine an adjective of manner with a character’s noun of vocation. 

Adjective of manner: grumpy
Noun of vocation: server

This gives you the thumbnail description: grumpy server. It conjures up an image. Sure, it needs to be filled out--as it is we are dealing with a two-dimensional character--but it gives us a start, it can serve as a kind of summary of a character, a hook to hang other qualities from.

Swain writes,

“Make the surly cop a sloppy cop or a forthright cop or friendly cop or worried cop, and he becomes a totally new person. Frequently such switches can even be parlayed into intriguing, character-defining, contradictory touches that add extra interest. Let happenstance throw the wise-cracking secretary into contiguity with the long-faced undertaker...” (Dwight V. Swain, Creating Characters: How to Build Story People.)

That made me think of the secretary (Janine Melnitz) and the scientist (Dr. Egon Spengler) from Ghostbusters (1984). That combination worked!

Okay, that’s it! Currently I'm publishing a post on Monday and Thursday. On Tuesday I will publish a new interview on my YouTube channel. This week my video will feature poet and prose writer Kevin Gooden. Kevin and I chatted about his experience with the Gotham Writers Workshop, which was overwhelmingly positive, how to write a good cover letter as well as how one's own life experiences can enrich one's writing.

Good writing!

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Friday, October 25

How to Succeed: The Importance of Clarity

It doesn’t matter how well a story is structured, or how clever the writing is, if it isn’t clear to readers what the text is meant to express.

Ask yourself, What is writing? Here’s my experience: I sit at my writing desk and have a thought. I write down that thought. When someone reads that sentence I want them to grasp the same thought I had when I wrote the sentence. If that happens, my prose is perfectly clear. Goal accomplished! But thoughts can be garbled in various ways.

In this article I write about how to communicate thoughts and emotions clearly as well as how this can go wrong.

Cause & Effect: Order Matters

In Jack M. Bickham’s excellent book Scene & Structure, he gives several examples of a garbled thought and how to fix it.

Example 1

Take the sentence:
“Joe turned after hearing the gunshot.”
Grammatically, there is nothing wrong with this sentence, but the stimulus and response are backward. It should be:

Hearing the shot, Joe turned.

That’s the psychologically correct order of events. As a result, not only is the sentence clearer and easier to read but it is more emotionally engaging.

Example 2

Here’s another example Bickham gives:
“Having been angry for days, Joe punched Sam.”
When I first read this sentence I thought, “Well, that’s okay!” But it isn’t. You likely saw it right away. Joe has been angry with Sam for days, so why punch him now? What happened? There is no motivating stimulus, no trigger.

Years ago I had long hair that fell past my waist. After a particularly rough breakup, I told my hairdresser to cut it all off. She had wanted me to let her cut my hair for years, so I expected her to be happy. She wasn’t. She frowned and asked, “Why? What has happened?” That was insightful. Why should I cut my hair NOW? Something in my life must have changed.

Bickham doesn’t give this example but -- even though it’s far from perfect -- even this construction would work better:
Having been angry for days, Joe said, “You have some nerve!” to Sam.
Joe punched Sam.
That’s better! At least we have a trigger. Sure, there are still questions. For instance, why is Joe angry with Sam? However, maybe you want your readers to be curious, to ask themselves, What did Sam do to Joe?

If we wanted to make things clearer we could add an internalisation between the stimulus and the response:
Having been angry for days, Joe said, “You have some nerve!” to Sam.
Sam wondered if Joe had found out he’d slept with his wife.
Joe punched Sam.
That’s not great literature, but you get the idea. We now understand Joe’s motives and the progression of action and reaction makes sense.

Example 3

Here’s another one of Bickham’s examples. And, again, when I first read this I didn’t see anything wrong:
“Rick hit Bill. Bill was surprised.”
It’s boring, but it seems like an okay sentence, right? If I walk up to someone and they hit me, I’d be surprised! But, more than that, we seem to have a stimulus (Rick hit Bill) and a response (Bill was surprised).

To show you what’s wrong, let’s change the sentence a bit:
“Rick hit Bill. Bill was surprised. Bill hit Rick.”
Again, I am NOT saying this is great literature, but on some deep level the second sentence is more satisfying than the first. Why? Because it is complete. Here the response is VISIBLE. Rick hit Bill and Bill was surprised, the surprise is internal, invisible.

How do we know Bill was surprised? Did he stagger back, put his hand over his cheek and yell at Rick, “Why’d you do that!?” That would have been okay.

To sum up: Clarity depends on the correct presentation of cause and effect. The punch (a physical thing) is thrown, there is a moment of confusion, or perhaps of expectation (internalization), and then the punch lands (physical) and then there is an internal response to this and then another physical action, and so on.

That’s the pattern: ACTION - INTERNALIZATION - RESPONSE. Both the action and response need to be EXTERNAL. Visible. The internalization is optional. But for every action there MUST BE a response, and for every response there must have been an action.

Two Plain Facts about Feelings

You’re a writer. You’ve grasped the basics of grammar, word choice, sentence structure, and working with five hours of sleep. You can craft a sentence that communicates a clear thought. However, none of this has anything to do with how to craft an entertaining story, and that’s your goal.

There are two things here. Actually, it's the same thing on two different levels.

a. Create a world full of meaning: Give the hero a goal

You want to create a world filled with meaning. But how? Easy. Give the protagonist a goal, set her upon a quest. Then order everything else in the story according to this final goal. (This is one reason why knowing your ending in advance helps.)

This is an aside, but I want to say something about the usefulness of free indirect discourse. You want your reader to identify with your hero, you want your reader to see through your hero’s eyes. When you use free indirect discourse, your reader sees the character’s thoughts laid bare and this helps the reader sink into his perspective. The reader feels as though (temporarily and only in this imaginary world) she shares the same goal.

(If you want to read more about free indirect discourse, I've written an article, "Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul," where I include examples.)

That’s one level, that’s a 20,000 foot view of Story and why we love them so much. But there is another level, one lower down. This one has to do with the mechanics of creating meaning.

b. It’s all about the reader’s feelings

Our tools are words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. How does one thing -- a reader hanging off your every word -- come about from reading words arranged one after the other?

Dwight V. Swain in Chapter 3 of his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, writes that (I’m paraphrasing) the manipulation of your reader’s feelings is the foundation stone on which your story will succeed or fail.
Question: WHAT should you try to communicate to your readers?
Answer: Feelings.
Question: How does one go about communicating feelings to your readers?
Answer: Through motivation and reaction. 
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It’s actually quite complex. I can’t cover all of Dwight V. Swain’s ideas about this here, but I want to touch on how he views motivation and reaction.

Motivation and Reaction

How and Why

I’ve read stories where the writer has mastered the basics of storytelling, their dialogue was great, the bones of the general story and how it hooked into the setting was good, but the way the character was introduced confused me. And there is NOTHING more important than introducing your protagonist, at least in terms of keeping your reader turning the pages.

I think this is one of the many places where Dwight V. Swain shines.

By the way, New York Times Best Selling author Jim Butcher studied under Deborah Chester and she, in turn, studied under Jack M. Bickham who in turn studied under Dwight V. Swain. They have all made their living writing stories. This works.

Here’s the logic.

1. decide what is good and what is bad

Easy, right? But a lot of writers don’t do this! Let’s say I’m writing a fantasy story and I give the protagonist the power of generating electricity from her fingertips. Well, so what? What difference does that make in the context of the story?

In order for a reader to know how to feel about our wonderful protagonist developing this new power we need context. How would her family feel about her developing this power? How about her friends? How about her society?

For example, if her family thought her gift was a gift from god then they would feel proud. On the other hand, if they thought it was a curse -- if they believed she had done something dispicable to bring this on herself -- then they might be hostile toward her, they might disown the protagonist or even try to harm her physically.

1a. How society sees things

I've touched on this, above, but let's go into it in more depth.

Having developed her new power, would the average person, or even the state, think the protagonist was a demon and attempt to burn her at the stake?

Would the average person greet the protagonist as a potential hero, as someone who could defend them from a potential threats? That matters! That is going to shape not only how the protagonist feels and reacts toward her new power, but how the other characters react to her.

1b. Relative to a goal

Continuing with the example, another thing for a writer to ask her/himself is whether this new power will help the protagonist achieve her goal. (Let’s say the hero’s goal is to save the world from an asteroid set to crash into it in 31 days.)

Let’s say the hero becomes a vampire and needs to drink human blood to survive. This is time consuming, she’s not crazy about the whole blood drinking thing, there are ethical considerations about procurement of blood, and so on.

On the other hand, our hero is super strong, has preternaturally good hearing, sight, and so on. Is this good or bad?

It depends on whether it helps her or hurts her in attaining her overall goal. Perhaps it turns out that there really is no asteroid set to crash into the earth and Nemoth the Numbnut had made it appear so because he wanted to create a panic. He wanted to rob a few banks and decided that in all the confusion caused by everyone believing the world was going to end would be useful.

1c. Be specific.

I think this is what is behind the admonition to avoid sentences like, “It was a dark and stormy night.” I’ve used the example of Stephen King’s first line from IT several times. Like all of Stephen King’s first lines it grabs the reader and shows them something specific about a character pursuing a goal.
“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” (Stephen King, It)
How great is that! There’s something about King’s writing that sucks me in from the very first sentence. And I really do believe it has to do with specificity. The general is vague, the specific is clear.

1d. Introduce a yardstick.

I’ve touched on this a bit, above, but let’s go into it in greater depth. A writer needs to introduce something which tells the reader that, within the story world, one thing is better than another. A hierarchy of values (think of a pyramid) needs to be implemented. The highest value is at the top, and everything in the story world is sorted according to that.

As far as what exactly this ultimate good is, that is going to vary from story to story, from hero to hero. The occupation the hero has (engineer vs doctor vs psychologist vs politician) can also influence what that character's highest good is. For example, Indiana Jones’ ultimate good was recovering and preserving the artifacts of ancient (or alien) civilizations. He believed they had intrinsic worth.

In each Indiana Jones movie, in each story, it was a different specific artifact, a different goal, but the general goal never changed.


As in real life, the important thing is never the event itself. Graduation is important because you’ve accomplished a goal and are now heading out into the world to start life.

In fiction, there are two ways a thing can matter. First, it matters if it relates to your main character and whether it helps or hinders him accomplish his goal. Second, a thing also matters if it affects the other characters achieve their goals.

In the beginning, the hero is faced with a specific instance of tragedy. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle were murdered by Stormtroopers operating under the orders of an evil Emperor. Luke came home from his visit with Obi-Wan Kenobi and saw their skeletal, smoking, corpses. That’s traumatic!

Luke’s aunt and uncle had raised him since he was first born, he loved them and was grateful for what they had done for him, although it was time for him to go off on his own.

Swain writes that (I‘m paraphrasing) something is meaningful to the reader only if it is meaningful to one of your characters. That sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But I’ve gone through many of my old stories and, in the beginning, I sometimes narrated events that should have been enacted. I needed to show how events changed my character’s lives.

Give your character a moral compass

While this is related to the previous point, I thought it deserved a section of its own. A character’s moral compass is usually expressed through a character. For example, in Pinocchio Jiminy Cricket was the wooden puppet’s conscience. Introducing a moral compass also has the advantage of introducing conflict.

When your main character is going to do something morally dubious and likely self-destructive the moral compass (often a best friend or sidekick, for example, Donkey in Shrek) warns the hero against it. An argument, which introduces conflict (and that’s good!) usually begins.

Swain writes that, “All reactions, all feelings, boil down to ‘This is good’ or ‘This is bad.’ You like chocolate or you don’t. You like your job or you don’t. And as I’ve said, whether you like these things changes from time to time based on associated factors like whether you’re hungry, whether you’re tired, whether your boss has yelled at you for no reason, and so on.”

I have a mild disagreement with Swain. He believes that a fact, a story, an event, cannot provoke an emotion in a READER if a character does not react to it. I see his point and I think that's mostly true. And I don't want to throw any shade on Swain, he was a master storyteller.

But honestly, I’m not sure I believe that everything of significance needs to be shown, filtered through, a character. I think that some descriptive writing builds a picture and can be moving.

To sum up this point: You need to know where your hero stands in relation to everything else in the story because everything is set in relation to him or her. The hero’s greatest goal, greatest desire, becomes the greatest good and stands at the top of the hierarchy of values.

The Focal Character

This phrase isn’t used often: The focal character. Think of Sherlock Holmes stories. Watson was the narrator but everything, the whole story was about Sherlock Holmes. If the reader could have seen inside Sherlock Holmes’ mind there would have been no suspense. They were mystery stories, after all!

Many of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories were like this as well. We saw the world through Watson’s eyes, he was the viewpoint character, but clearly the entire story was about the powers of deduction of Hercule Poirot and so he was the focal character.

So, to put this in my own way, the focal character is the one who orders the story world and gives it meaning or significance.

The focal character needs to constantly be put in situations -- both large and small -- where he stands to win or lose. This will illicit feeling within the reader.

So it’s VERY IMPORTANT that, at all points of a story, at every moment in every scene, you strive to orient the reader in relation to your hero as he acts in a specific situation.

But this is more difficult to do than it may seem. It is easy to confuse the reader. I’ve been guilty of this time and time again, especially when I was a kid. I would write about THINGS, about a beautiful sunset, about a meandering stream, about a mysterious glade I happened upon. I would sit (literally!) on the steps of the art gallery and write vignettes about how the crowd swirled around me.

But none of that made for a good story.

Stories are about a CHARACTER’S reactions to a series of specific situations. Yes, there are Things in these scenes but a thing is only included if it relevant to a character achieving their goal.

I’m paraphrasing Dwight V. Swain here: The story is about the hero’s reactions to what happens. It is about the hero’s feelings, emotions, impulses, dreams, ambitions, drives and inner conflicts.

Again, things are only important inasmuch as it helps depict the hero’s reactions.

2. Create a story world.

Remember that your reader has never been in the world of your story. Make it memorable, make it easy to grasp. It can be alien and complex, but make it easy for your reader to fall into. Make sure to use all the focal character’s senses when describing it.

Show the reader, your reader, the hero’s mind, his thoughts, his feelings. Remember, your hero is becoming something. He is going from cowardice to courage, from incompetence to mastery. He changes, and he changes by DOING things.

How does a writer accomplish this? Shape external developments. The outcome of each scene must have a significant effect on the rest of the story. It must be linked to the hero eventually getting or losing his final goal, whatever that is. The final goal could be to keep his license to practise law, to kill the dragon, to rejuvenate his community, or whatever.

3. Each cause must have an effect and every effect must have a cause.

Dwight V. Swain writes, “People like the idea that there’s a reason behind everything that happens … a cause for every effect …” And that’s true! Readers -- people -- do like that idea. It’s likely not true, but we want it to be. So, in our story world, every event needs to have a cause and every cause needs to have an effect.

Please note that when I talk about cause and effect I mean more than that there has been a change. We aren’t just saying that something has happened. We are saying that something has happened because of something else, and that if that something else hadn’t happened, then the current event wouldn’t have either.

4. Motivation and Reaction

For each motivating stimulus there is a character reaction. Someone spritzes your character in the face with perfume (motivating stimulus) and the focal character sneezes (character reaction). This is a one-to-one relation.

First there is a change in a physical, visible, state of affairs. Then (this is optional) there is a change in a character's state of mind. Finally the character physically responds to the change in affairs that just occurred.

A story -- or at least a scene -- is a chain of these motivation -- response units.

5. Motivation and Reaction Units Shape Emotion

I’ve belonged to various critique groups. In all of these, writers had different levels of skill. Some were professionals while others were just starting out and so shared their first stories.

Sometimes a beginning writer would create a captivating story, but it was difficult for me, as a reader, to get into the story. Why? Because what the protagonist wanted, what her goal was, was either unclear or it didn’t make sense.

I expand on this, below.

The Order of Events Should be Clear

In order for readers to become attached to the protagonist. The focal character must be presented with a problem. In Swain’s example (I've used the same example in a previous post) when a man gets home from work he finds a note from his wife on the hall table. He reads it. She has left him for someone else.

So that’s the problem, that’s the break in the status-quo, the change in his state of affairs.

Now the reader needs to know how the character responds to that change.

The man doesn’t believe it. He’s numb. His state of mind has changed. Then shock washes through him, shock and horror and rage and, finally, grief.

Note the order here.

a. Something happened. An event. The man found and read the goodbye letter.
b. The man had an internal reaction to that event.
c. The man does something, he physically reacts. He slumps, boneless, shaking, into a nearby chair.
d. The chair is broken -- his wife kept nagging him to fix it -- and it crumbles beneath him.

Event causes event that causes event that … You get the idea.
Let’s break this down chronologically

Here’s the structure Swain gives:

Motivation Reaction Units (M-R Units)

First: Motivating stimulus.
Second: Character reaction. He divides this into three parts:
a. Feeling
b. Action
c. Speech

First we have the motivating stimulus. Next we have the character’s reaction. The character’s reaction has three parts and each of these parts has to occur in a particular order: feeling, action and speech. Note, though, that not all of these must be used in each motivation reponse pair, you can skip one or two depending on the situation. For instance, in dialogue, we often only have speech.

That said, motivation ALWAYS precedes reaction. Recall that the goal of all of this is to help writers create clear prose and in so doing create stories that are eminently readable. If you can do that and ignore one or more of these steps, awesome! But if readers have trouble imaginatively entering into your story world, if they have trouble understanding your characters, then this is something you could try.


Go through a scene in your work in progress and rewrite it so that the motivating stimulus and the character reaction are explicit. Do this for the viewpoint character. Make sure the character reaction includes feeling, action and speech, in that order.

Done? Now read both scenes, is the re-written one easier to read? Please tell me what you think in the comments, I’m really very interested in whether this worked for you.

In a future post I’ll go over the motivating stimulus in more depth. If you’ve gotten something out of this article and would like to support my writing, here is a link to my patreon account.

Friday, October 18

Creating Emotion Through Action and Reaction

Creating Emotion Through Action and Reaction

Good Writing Patterns: Creating Emotion

Hello! Welcome. Yesterday I talked about the importance of getting cause and effect right for creating characters that feel real. In that article I broke cause and effect into: stimulus -- internalization -- response.

Today I want to focus on how to use that basic idea to sculpt a character, and to put that character in a situation, one that will create a specific emotion in your reader.

That sounds manipulative, doesn’t it? And it is! But when a reader picks up a book they want to be entertained AND maybe learn something. That would be a bonus. The image I keep coming back to is of a group of people huddled around a campfire. It is cold and dark and they will soon go back to their damp tents and try to sleep. It is the storytellers job to tell the group a story that will make the darkness less scary, the cold less miserable, and the prospect of a night in their damp tent almost bearable. At least, that’s how I think of it.

But in order to do that, we need to know how to create characters, and put these characters in particular situations, ones that will elicit certain emotions in our audience. For example, the emotion of hope. Why do you think single women (I am saying this from personal experience!) like to read romance stories? Enough said.

BTW, in what follows I’m drawing from Dwight V. Swain’s excellent book, Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Motivating and Reaction Sentences

We’re going to get to the good stuff in a minute -- I don’t want this to feel like you’re back in school! -- but we need to have these concepts under our belt for the rest of what I have to say to make sense.

So, briefly, motivating and reaction sentences are cause and effect pairs. I’ll explain this in detail in a moment, but let me give you an example so it will make more sense when I do.

Motivating sentence: “The car raced down the dangerously narrow road.”
Reaction sentence: “Joe gripped the steering wheel with sweaty hands, hoping he would be in time to see his daughter born.”

Here we set up the general situation, there is the event and then the character's reaction to the event.

These are their characteristics:

Motivating Sentence

The motivating sentence is one sentence.

Swain believes that if you’re not familiar with writing in motivating and reaction sentences that it will work best if the motivating sentence really is just one sentence. He writes:

“Yet though extra sentences may sharpen up your copy, there still are virtues to the one-sentence rule. When you’re just learning, for example, you tend to kid yourself that you need a lot more verbiage than really is essential. Given half a chance, some of us would feel it necessary to mention that fury seethed within Brad; that his blue eyes grew bleak; that muscles knotted at the hinges of his jaws; that his nostrils flared and his fists tightened and his face flushed. As the saying goes, the kitchen sink would be there too if we could only figure out a way to get it through the door!” (Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer)

He’s not wrong!

The motivating sentence contains no mention of the focal character.

The motivating sentence does NOT contain any mention of the focal character. For example, even this won’t work: “Kim saw the car speed away.” It would need to be, “The car sped away,” we need to keep Kim’s internal states out of it.

BTW, the focal character is usually the protagonist, but not always. The focal character is the character that the story revolves around. For example, in Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories the great detective was the focal character even if the story itself was written from Watson’s first person perspective.

This sentence describes the way the world is. 

This is what my english teacher called third person, fly-on-the-wall perspective. I love the expression “fly-on-the-wall” because I ask myself: What would a fly see?

This sentence must be specific.

I’ve said this before, but I think that one of the reasons why a writer these days should never use, “It was a dark and stormy night” as an opening line is that it’s too general. Instead:

“Lightning flashed, slicing open the darkness, as rain beat a soothing staccato rhythm on the canvas tarp.”

I probably should break that into two shorter sentences, but I think it works. Again, my example isn’t meant to be great literature, I just want to illustrate the principle. The sentence expresses a much more specific picture than “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Reaction Sentence

One sentence

I went over this point, above.

This sentence is all about the character’s reactions.

In the motivating sentence the focal character couldn’t be mentioned, not even by pronoun! In the Reaction Sentence it is all about the focal character and how they are reacting. I’m going to talk a lot more about this either below or in a separate post.

Keep in mind that the character’s reactions should reflect who they are.

For example, let’s say a character is generally fearful (as opposed to angry, happy, clueless, observant, and so on). So, for example, if Jim is a fearful sort and he’s inside the canvas tent mentioned in my earlier example, I could write, “Shaking, Jim pressed his eyes shut -- the storm will pass in a few minutes, it will pass in a few minutes, it will … -- and inched further inside his sleeping bag.”

Include the focal character’s dominant attitude.

Swain writes that the reaction sentence should communicate your character’s state of mind. To do this you use their DOMINANT ATTITUDE.

I’ll talk about what Swain meant by the dominant attitude or feeling of a character more in another post, but I just touched on this idea when I said that a character will have one distinctive primary way of reacting to things.

For instance, in my example I gave above, Jim’s dominant attitude was “fearful.” Whenever he encounters a stormy night, an unexpected bill, someone asking him for the time, he filters what he sees/feels/smells/hears through his general attitude of fearfulness.

Using different dominant attitudes for each of your characters helps make them each unique.

The Significance of the Motivating Stimulus

Recall that the motivating stimulus can’t involve the focal character. But we want to craft the motivating sentence in such a way that it will grab the interest of the focal character.

Of course, all your characters are different, they have different interests, different capacities. For each main character, a different set of motivating stimuli will be important.

For example, if two people -- Joan and Adam -- go to a racetrack, different things are going to be significant to them based on their past history, interests and dominant attitude. Joan is a mechanic, she is egotistical (that’s her dominant attitude), and has had a lifelong interest in cars. So what does she notice first? Yes! Cars. But, specifically, she notices the fastest car driven by the best team. Joan completely ignores the drivers.

Adam, though, is a timid limousine driver who shuffles around rich clients at moderate speeds, but he has always dreamt of racing. HE notices the drivers and looks at them with envy. Adam would really like to go and talk to the drivers but he has trouble summoning up the courage.

Again, the idea of SIGNIFICANCE is that, based on a character’s interests, different characters will notice different things about the environment based upon how important -- how significant -- those features are to that character.

Creating an Environment

At this point, you might think, Well, that’s fine, but how do I create an environment that will interest a particular character? Swain has this covered, but this post is already going to run a bit long, so I’m going to go into detail about it in another post. (I think it will have a title like: bringing a character to life.) However, here's a brief overview:

Ask yourself: What is the effect you want to create by using this stimulus? For example, a car racing down a road or a thunderstorm in the dead of night. Remember you want to do two things: You want to MOTIVATE your focal character in such a way that that character will have the desired reaction. At the same time, you want to get your reader to FEEL for the focal character.

An Example

Let’s say that Jim, a timid insurance salesperson, is your focal character and you want your audience to bond with him. To do this, you need to let your audience watch Jim struggle with big challenges, and you need him to suffer big setbacks.

Let’s have Jim’s wife run off with another man. (Writers really are horrible people, the things we do to our characters!)

a. Pick something -- a person, thing, event -- to create this effect.

This is Swain’s example, more or less: Jim comes home from a hard day at the office and finds a note on the hall table. His wife has left him and he reacts to this.

So that's the idea. In what follows, I'm going to try and break sentences up into Motivating and Reaction pairs.

b. Get specific. Zoom in. 

What is it about the motivating stimulus that will evoke the particular character reaction you want your character to have? Well, being specific helps.

In the following, as Jim reacts I'll try and convey the impression that Jim is timid, passive. I'm sure this could be done better, I'm just trying to illustrate the ideas I've been talking about.
There is a note on the side table.  (Motivating sentence)

Jim sees the note soon as he walks in the door. Startled, he looks around for his wife but the house is silent and cold. Jim reaches for the note with a trembling hand. He reads: (Reaction sentences)

I’ve left you darling, there’s meatloaf in the fridge.  (Motivating sentence)

Jim slumps against the table, his mind racing. It must be a mistake. He’s in the wrong house, or this is an elaborate, cruel, joke. (Reaction sentences)

One of the table’s legs, damaged during a particularly good New Year's Eve party his wife had organized, breaks. (Motivating sentence)

John falls to the floor and sobs. (Reaction sentence)
Poor guy!

Here, reading the note was the stimulus, we then have an internalization -- we see his pain, his puzzlement -- and finally the response, he slumps against the table. This response is a bit anemic, I could put a vase of flowers on the table that he could throw, a vase he had given her as a gift for their first anniversary. Or something. But you get the idea.

c. Trim away anything unnecessary.

Okay, you’ve written your scene. Look at it. What do you NEED to motivate your character’s reaction, his response? Got it? Okay, good. Now throw away everything else.

There is a note on the side table.

Jim sees it as soon as he gets home and reaches for it with a trembling hand. He reads:

I’ve left you darling, there’s meatloaf in the fridge.

Jim slumps against the table. It must be a mistake. He’s in the wrong house, or this is an elaborate, cruel, joke.

One of the table’s legs, damaged during a particularly rowdy New Year's Eve party his wife had organized, breaks.

John falls to the floor and sobs.
I prefer the stripped down version!

d. Make your character unique.

Now take things to the next level. Describe the cause, the motivation, in a way that reflects your focal characters attitude.

There is a note on the side table. It is folded in half and has the name, "Jim," neatly written across it. Jance, Jim's wife, loved writing notes; she refused to text. She wrote notes to plumbers to tell them their work was subpar, she wrote to her only sister to tell her how she could fix her life. She had never, ever, written a note to her husband. Until now.

John sees the note as soon as he gets home ... etc etc

As you can see, I completely disregarded the one sentence rule! I tried to keep the sentences free of any mention of the focal character, Jim, and the experience demonstrated to me how much I really wanted to write the sentence: Jim saw the note on the table.

I think that trying to write in M-R units could be a very good exercise for me. I just re-read the beginning of Stephen King's The Shining, and King seems to more or less follow this. Although, that said, he doesn't begin with a motivating sentence, he begins with a reaction sentence. And that reaction sentence is one of the best opening lines I've ever read because it takes the reader inside the focal character's head IMMEDIATELY: Jack Torrance thought: Officious little [expletive].

Writing Challenge

I'm going to rewrite a scene from my work in progress and put Dwight V. Swain's tips to work. I challenge you to do the same. I'd love to know what you think of the re-written scene. Is it better? Worse? How much of Dwight V. Swain's tips do you think you'll incorporate into your work?

If you've enjoyed this article and would like to help me keep doing this, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks! :-)


Dwight V Swain On How To Write A Novel

Wednesday, December 17

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: Tailoring Your Cast of Characters To Your Protagonist

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: Tailoring Your Cast of Characters To Your Protagonist

Yesterday we saw that character traits don’t come singly but in pairs. If a character is, say, one angry SOB then, all things being equal, this should be balanced out by tenderness. 

This balancing can happen in one of three ways. First, the character can go from anger to tenderness over time. Second, the character can appear angry but it’s really all bluff and bluster, they’re a softie on the inside. Third, the character can be a barely contained raging storm of emotion and this quality is contrasted by tenderness in another character. (For more on this see my last post: The Power of Paradox. To read this series from the beginning, here is a link to the first post: Story Openings: Five Choices.)

In what follows, I’ll examine this third way of expressing opposing pairs of character traits, paying special attention to how this can be used to tailor our cast of characters to the protagonist.

4. How to fit the protagonist to the cast of characters and the cast of characters to the protagonist.

Both Dwight V. Swain and Robert McKee agree that one’s cast of characters should be created with the goal of using them to tease out all the various dimensions of our protagonist. In “Techniques of the Selling Writer,” Swain writes:

“Each person [character] should make a different dominant impression. If three characters all pulse dignity at every turn, each will detract from the impact of the others. What you want is variety, not sameness.”

McKee, in “Story,” goes on to extend this notion by telling us how to make each of our characters dramatize—hook into—the various dimensions of the protagonist. McKee writes:

“In essence, the protagonist creates the rest of the cast. All other characters are in a story first and foremost because of the relationship they strike to the protagonist and the way each helps to delineate the dimensions of the protagonist’s complex nature. Imagine a cast as a kind of solar system with the protagonist as the sun, supporting roles as planets around the sun, bit players as satellites around the planets—all held in orbit by the gravitational pull of the star at the center, each pulling at the tides of the others’ natures.”

That’s the analogy, the idea. Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty. (What follows is from McKee’s example in “Story.” The only things I’ve added are the names and situations.)

Let’s say our protagonist, Donald McTaggert, has the following dimensions:

i. Amusing -- Morose
ii. Optimistic -- Cynical
iii. Compassionate -- Cruel
iv. Fearless -- Fearful 

Since we’ve given Donald four pairs of opposing traits we say that he’s four dimensional. Now, what sort of characters should we build to flesh out, to dramatize, each of Donald’s dimensions? 

Creating characters to connect with each of the protagonist’s dimensions.

Following the pairs of characteristics McKee gives us in “Story” let’s fashion a cast of characters that ‘hooks onto’ our Protagonist.

Character A: Angie Wilkes, Donald’s ex-wife. 

Donald’s interactions with his ex-wife show us his morose (i) and cynical (ii) sides. Angie, on the other hand, is amusing (i), optimistic (ii), and completely out of contact with reality. She’s convinced that she and Donald have merely hit a speed-bump and that, any day now, he’ll forgive her for having an affair with his best friend. 

Character B: Henry McTaggert, Donald’s son. 

Henry is Donald and Angie’s only child. Even though Donald is often cruel (iii) and fearful (iv) when he is with others, when he is with his son he is both compassionate (iii) and fearless (iv)—or at least that’s the front Donald tries to put on for Henry’s sake.

Character C: Greta Kettles, Donald’s co-worker. 

Donald is secretly in love with Greta. Whenever he’s around her his stomach rumbles and he feels light headed. In those moments he is optimistic (ii) and even amusing (i).

Character D: Fred Danger, lurker.

One day Fred, a man of indeterminate age who has been hanging around Henry’s high school, comes into the boy’s classroom wielding a gun. Henry manages to use his cell phone to text his dad. After reading the text Donald is terrified (iv). His son could be killed, other children could be killed. Donald’s fear is quickly transformed into anger (--> fearlessness (iv)). His lip curled, Donald jumps into his SUV muttering, “How dare you threaten my son. I’ll show you what it is to be afraid.”

I put that example together in a couple of minutes, but hopefully you get the gist. All things being equal, the best way to dramatize one characteristic is by pairing it with its opposite. 

Which isn’t to say that a single character can’t be both, for example, fearful and fearless if we show them at different points in time or we contrast appearance and reality (they only appear terrified, they’re really not) but, since we’ve been interested in creating a cast of characters that teases out our protagonist’s dimensions, we’ve been focusing on pairing his characteristics with those of other characters.

As McKee writes, this is how to not only make characters multidimensional, but to show those dimensions to the reader.

Next week we’ll go into more depth about how to create a cast of characters that teases out the inherent complexities we’ve been at such pains to give our protagonist.

Photo credit: "Dark lemur on the branch" by Tambako The Jaguar under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0.