Showing posts with label Techniques of the Selling Writer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Techniques of the Selling Writer. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 21

Creating Effective Transitions

Creating Effective Transitions

Transitions are tricky. In a scene you write in the moment, recording your character's thoughts, feelings, actions and—most important of all—desires. In those times when you're immersed in the scene writing can seem effortless.

Transitions, not so much.

I'm not saying it's unclear what I need to do in a transition. At least, speaking generally. I know where I need to start (the disaster that ended the previous scene) and where I need to end (the viewpoint character's new goal) and what I need to do in between these two points (emotion --> thought --> decision --> action). But, still, these are general guidelines that allow for a LOT of flexibility.

Today I'm going to talk about how to create effective transitions between scenes.

(BTW, if you’re wondering what a sequel is I talk about them in Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts.  For more about scenes and sequels I also recommend Dwight V. Swain's book, Techniques of the Selling Writer and Jack Bickham's Scene & Structure.)

Simple Transitions and Sequels

Jack Bickham tells us there are two kinds of transitions: simple transitions and sequels.

I talk more about simple transitions, below, but basically simple transitions are what they sound like, one or two lines that takes you from one place/time to another place/time. For example, "At 10:30 Sarah was eating ice cream, three hours later she was dead."

Sequels are longer more complex transitions that link scenes together. At the beginning of a sequel the protagonist has been humiliated and defeated. Not only has he NOT achieved his goal, he has lost whatever progress he made. The question is: What does he do now? What is his next goal?

Transitions are about emotion.

All transitions should show the viewpoint character's emotion. (Scenes, on the other hand, are about CONFLICT.) Dwight V. Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer states that emotion “unifies sequel and holds it together.”

During a sequel your protagonist is preoccupied with the emotional and physical aftermath of whatever disaster ended the previous sequel. Swain writes that for a character to be preoccupied in this way is “actually to be preoccupied with a particular set of feelings. If your girl runs out on you ... you feel hurt and angry. If your boss fires you, you feel angry and panicky. If your friend betrays you, you feel grieved and confused.”

“... until you decide what to do about the situation, your feelings can’t help but be the thing uppermost in your mind.”

In a transition you summarize, skipping anything that doesn't help communicate the viewpoint character's dominant emotion, that doesn't help show his or her reaction to the disaster at the end of the preceding scene.

The Dominant Feeling

Let's talk a bit more about that last point. Think about the particular transition you’re writing. What is your character’s dominant feeling? Is it hate? Love? Fear? Desperation? Dread? Whatever it is, this will give you the unifying theme. For example:

Lily blinked at her computer and cringed. She would rather have a root canal than try to string words together coherently. Perhaps her ideas would flow more easily tomorrow. But when tomorrow came even the thought of writing felt like the blade of a knife.

In the above example I attempted to communicate the feeling of dread I've felt a time or three at the prospect of having to commit words to (virtual) paper. Lily was also dying for a big juicy hamburger and tired after a night of troubled sleep, but I didn't say anything about that because it wouldn't help express her feeling of dread.

Simple Transitions

Let's take a deeper look at simple transitions. As Jack Bickham writes in Scene & Structure, simple transitions cover either a change in time, a change in place or a change in viewpoint.

a. A change in time

Example: “It was the following Tuesday when they met again.”[1]

Example: Ruth flung her head back, closed her eyes and faced the sun, letting the heat dance over her skin. She wanted it to stay sunny forever. Alas, she lived in the Pacific Northwest. Fifteen minutes later it started to rain.

Transitions generally come between scenes and compress time. Chances are the protagonist has lost and lost big at the end of the previous scene. She must now figure out what to do and, as part of this, she will likely need to travel to different places, talk to different people. If we followed our protagonist around second-by-second our story would be very boring. So we need to summarize, condense. We need to figure out her dominant emotion and let that guide our choices.

b. A change in place 

Example: “At about the same time Joe met Billy another meeting was taking place on the other side of town.”[1]

Just as transitions compress time they generally compress space as well. When your protagonist goes to visit his friends you're not going to want to describe the car, the heat, etc. You only want to bring in what’s important for your story.

c. A change in viewpoint

Example: Dan smiled hoping his girlfriend, Jan, wouldn’t find out he’d made it to second base with her best friend. [New chapter] “Bastard!” Jan thought, looking at Dan, seeing his guilty smile.

Changes in viewpoint are straightforward. First you were telling the story through one character's eyes and now you've switched and are telling the story through another character's eyes.

Just make sure it's clear to the reader that the viewpoint has changed as well as whose viewpoint the story is now being told from. The writer doesn't want to confuse the reader so it's a good idea to do this in the first sentence and certainly in the first paragraph.

Transitions and Time

Recall that scenes happen in the moment, time unfolds second after second. Sure, time can slow down but there are no jumps, no gaps.

But if you wrote a story that detailed every single second of your protagonist's life you'd end up with a story bored any reader to tears!

We need to see characters live moment-by-moment when there is a burst of purposeful activity (i.e., a scene) but then we need to transition to the next burst. How we do this greatly affects the pace of a story.

Controlling Pace

New writers tend to write stories that need speeding up rather than slowing down, but here are the a few pointers for doing both. (Most of these points were drawn from Jack Bickham's book.)

How to speed up the pace of a story:

  • Where possible, remove sequels from between scenes.
  • Where it’s not possible to remove a sequel see if it would be just as effective if you used a simple transition rather than a sequel.
  • Can you cut some descriptions of emotion from your sequels?
  • Check the motivations and goals of your characters in the scenes your transition links. Is it clear what motives your main characters? What their goals are?
  • Can you raise the stakes in one or more of the scenes?
  • Can you make the disasters at the end of your scenes more dramatic?

How to slow down the pace of the story:

  • Cut one or more scenes.
  • Shorten one or  more scenes.
  • Reveal more of the viewpoint character’s thoughts.
  • Expand the sequels.

That's it for today! I'll talk to you again on Friday. Till then, good writing!

Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, they put a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

I've talked about Jack Bickham and Dwight V. Swain in my article and can wholeheartedly recommend their books. Yes, they say basically the same thing but I love reading authors who the same topic but from different perspectives. If you're wondering which book to start with I'd recommend Jack Bickham's Scene & Structure

Here's a quote from Scene & Structure:
MENTION WORDS SUCH AS STRUCTURE, form, or plot to some fiction writers, and they blanch. Such folks tend to believe that this kind of terminology means writing by some type of formula or predetermined format as rigid as a paint-by-numbers portrait.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In reality, a thorough understanding and use of fiction’s classic structural patterns frees the writer from having to worry about the wrong things, and allows her to concentrate her imagination on characters and events 


1. The example for (a) and (b) were from Jack M. Bickham’s book, Scene & Structure.

Friday, November 25

Turning An Idea Into A Story

Turning An Idea Into A Story

I know I’ve touched on this in a couple of previous posts. To be honest, there’s an old story I’ve written, one I love, but I know the structure is wrong. While I’ve become much better at spotting structural defects in the works of others, when it comes to my own work it’s devilishly hard because I’m so close to it.

I think that this is, at least in part, because I don’t need to read the words to grasp my story, it’s already in my head.

What I want to think about today is how to take an idea and treat it a bit like a piece of knitting or crochet that needs to be blocked. By this I mean, just as I would stretch a crocheted snowflake over a mould so that it would take on the appropriate shape, so a story idea can be positioned within a structure to see how well it fits, where it’s thin as well as where it bunches.

True, I wrote about this last time, but today I want to approach it from a different angle. Last time I talked about a writer’s audience and how this can influence the content of the work. Today I want to focus on shaping the story idea itself.

As always, I would love to know what you think! Are you getting a bit worn out by NaNoWriMo? What kind of articles would you like to read? If you feel that you haven’t achieved your writing goals, what would you say was the single biggest thing holding you back?

The Beginning of a Story Hypothesis

“(1) A state of affairs, present or projected, that symbolizes happiness to your hero.

“(2) A danger that threatens his chances of achieving or maintaining that state of affairs.”[1]

What I try to do is imagine each of these states of affairs as vividly and concretely as I can. Then I write them down. This serves as a foundation for my story.

Example: Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.

What state of affairs symbolized happiness to Clarice Starling?

As the title of the movie suggests, the lambs being silent.

Let me unpack that. Clarice was abandoned by her mother after the death of her father. She was angry. How could her mother abandon her own child? But then Clarice abandoned the lambs because it was out of her control. Like her mother, she couldn’t do anything to help. By the time we meet FBI trainee Starling, though she is still angry with her mother on some level, she’s more angry with herself.

What danger threatens Clarice’s chances of achieving or maintaining the said silence? Two threats: the serial killer Jame Gumb and the FBI. The serial killer because he’s the one killing the girls, Clarice’s lambs. The FBI because they care more about politics and advancement than about saving a life.

Example: Raiders of the Lost Ark

The state of affairs that symbolizes happiness to Indiana Jones is taking the Ark back to the university’s museum.

The danger that threatens Indy’s chances of achieving this state of affairs is, primarily, Belloq, his nemesis. Belloq is also an archeologist, one who keeps stealing the relics Indy recovers.

Now it’s your turn. I’d like you to think of two things and creative a vivid mental picture of each of these situations:

1. What state of affairs, present or projected, symbolizes happiness to your hero?
2. What danger threatens your hero’s chance of achieving or maintaining this state of affairs.

Five Elements In Every Story

Swain writes that the following five elements are in every story (see below). In what follows I use Raiders of the Lost Ark as an example.

1. A Protagonist

A protagonist is the person who the world pushes on, the one who is threatened by a specific danger. He is also the person who, eventually, pushes back.

Example: Indiana Jones, relic hunter.

2. A Situation/The Inciting Incident

This is the “backdrop of trouble that forces him [the protagonist] to act.”[1]

Example: Two men from army intelligence visit Indiana Jones and tell him that the Nazi’s have discovered Tanis, the resting place of the Ark.

3. The Objective/Protagonist’s Goal

The concrete thing or state of affairs the protagonist desires.

Example: The Ark ensconced in the university’s museum back in the USA.

4. An Antagonist

The antagonist not only resists the protagonist, he fights against him.

Example: Whenever Indiana Jones finds a significant relic, Dr. RenĂ© Belloq is there to snatch it away from him. Now, Belloq is working for the Nazi’s and he uses his knowledge of Indiana Jones’ character against him.

5. The Disaster

If there is nothing at stake the story isn’t as exciting. Further, the stakes must be personal, they must endanger the people and things the protagonist cares about most. Also, the stakes must increase until, at the climax, the protagonist is faced with a disaster that is “Something Unutterably Awful.”[1]

Example: The Nazi’s have not only found the Ark, they open it releasing the raw power of God.

The Story Question

The story question is formed by fitting two sentences together.

Sentence 1: This is a statement and it should establish the PROTAGONIST, SITUATION and OBJECTIVE.[1]

Sentence 2: This is a question and it should establish the ANTAGONIST and the DISASTER.[1]

Here are a few different forms a Story Question could take:

Dwight V. Swain:

First form: “Will this focal character defeat his opponent, overcome his private danger, and win happiness?”[1]

Will Indiana Jones defeat Dr. René Belloq, overcome the Nazi war machine and avert global disaster?

Second form: When [Situation/Inciting Incident] [Protagonist] wants [Protagonist’s Goal/Thing That Makes Her Happy]. Will she lose her chance for happiness because [Antagonist] [Disaster]?

Example: When Indiana Jones learns that Nazi archaeologists are close to recovering the Ark of the Covenant, he sets out to claim the ark for the United States and her allies. Will he lose his chance to avert global disaster because Dr. Rene Belloq once again snatches Indy’s prize away from him?

Jim Butcher:


Or: When [Inciting Incident occurs] [Protagonist] [Protagonist’s Goal]. But will he succeed when [Antagonist Opposes Protagonist]

Example: When Indiana Jones learns that Nazi archaeologists are going after the Ark of the Covenant he sets out to claim the Ark first. But will he succeed when Dr. Rene Belloq discovers Indiana’s plans?

Whatever form your story question takes it should be answerable with a “yes” or “no.”

Other Ways of Structuring a Story

These really aren’t other ways, they are different ways of representing or thinking about the same way. If you’re writing a short story or even a piece of flash fiction, these might be of a bit more help:

a. The Three O System: Objective, Obstacle, Outcome.[1]

Example: Indiana Jones wants to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to the USA. Unfortunately, Indy’s nemesis, Dr. Rene Belloq, is set on getting the Ark for the Nazi’s and he has no qualms about playing dirty. If Belloq succeeds the world as we know it could be destroyed.

b. Who, What, Why: WHO wants to do WHAT and WHY can’t he?[1]

Example: Indiana Jones wants to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to the USA. Unfortunately Dr. Rene Belloq and the Nazi war machine are set on taking the Ark for themselves.

The Secret Sauce: Linking this in with the protagonist’s character

I’m a fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. A BIG fan!

Every time Butcher releases a new book I block off a few hours of my day, curl up in my favorite chair and read the book cover to cover. Sure, I’ll go back later and re-read it. The second time will be slower, more careful. I’ll look at the structure of the story and try to analyze how Butcher created certain effects in the reader. But the first time through is pure unadulterated pleasure.

One thing I’ve noticed about the books of the Dresden Files series is that the main character, Harry Dresden—though clever and able to think well in the moment—isn’t the brightest bulb. Which is convenient since Dresden is uncompromisingly committed to doing the right thing (a.k.a. the moral thing).

What’s the right thing? It’s the unselfish thing. In other words, “Adherence to principle despite the temptation to self-interest.”[1]
What’s the wrong thing? It’s the selfish thing. In other words, “Abandonment of conviction for the sake of personal advantage.”[1]

This should really come through at the climax. Make sure that the moral issue is brought into play. The hero (and this is a big part of what makes a character a hero) does what he does for unselfish motives while the villain does what he does from selfish motives. I’m not saying it’s quite as clear cut as this, but (thinking about the books I’ve read and the movies I’ve seen) self-interest seems to be a dominant trait in most antagonists.[2]

As a result, though, often heroes are more good than bright. I’ve just mentioned Harry Dresden. It’s not that he’s stupid, far from it! But there are many people who are more intelligent than him in one way or another. That said, he excels at three things. First, he can think well under pressure. Second, he can think well in the moment, making a split-second decision that will (usually!) turn out to be the correct one. Third, he’s a planner, able to think of multiple possibilities and planning for them. He’s not brilliant but he can be exceptionally clever.

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I’d like to recommend Master Lists For Writers by Bryn Donovan. The author goes over setting, various plot types, how to write action as well as dialogue—and that’s for starters! From the blurb: “Whether you’re writing novels or short fiction, screenwriting, or any other kind of storytelling, MASTER LISTS FOR WRITERS is a rich source of inspiration you’ll turn to again and again.”

That’s it! I hope NaNo is going well for you. Remember, as long as you’ve written more than you would have otherwise, you’re a winner! I’ll talk to you again on Monday. In the meantime, good writing!


1. Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.

2. It is also true that every antagonist is the hero of his own story. The antagonist might see himself as a savior, unselfishly sacrificing himself—as well as, perhaps, those he cares about—for a greater good. Of course it could also be the case that he’s lying to himself!

3. Fundamentals—Story Skeletons by Jim Butcher.

Thursday, December 11

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: Bringing Characters To Life

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: Bringing Characters To Life

I know I said I would write about how to create a great story opening by introducing a minor mystery. I’m still going to write about that, but not today! Instead, I want to go back to the topic of my last post—creating, and introducing, characters. There are a few things I want to mention.

The Goal of Writing

Let’s go back to basics. What is our goal in creating characters? And, beyond that, why do we write? What is our objective? Here’s Jim Butcher’s answer: To make characters interesting and, in so doing, to get readers to empathize with the characters. He writes:

“If you can manage to create a vivid character in a reader's mind, then establish him as someone believable, you have a real shot at the Holy Grail of character design. If you do your job, you will create a sense of empathy in your reader for your characters. This is what makes people burst out laughing while reading. It's what makes readers cry, or cheer, or run off to take a cold shower.

“[...] empathy takes time to build and it relies heavily upon the skilled use of sequels. But if you can get the reader to this point, as an author, then you WIN. Big time. This is the ENTIRE GOAL of all this character work, because the reader's emotional involvement is the single most important factor in how well your story is going to fly.

“Or put another way, if you can make people love who you want them to love and hate who you want them to hate, you're going to have readers coming back to you over and over again.” (Characters)

How do we make characters interesting? Jim Butcher mentions a few ways in his post (and I urge you, if you’ve never read it—or if you haven’t read it recently—to do so) but I think these all, more or less, fall under the heading of tags and traits, two of the most important tools in character creation.

Tags and Traits

As we’ve seen, we want our characters to be interesting. We want them to catch and hold the reader’s attention. How do we do this?

Using tags and traits to bring a character to life

Dwight V. Swain in “Techniques of a Selling Writer” asks: How is a character brought to life? His answer: You make them (a) vivid and (b) credible.

How does one do this? One word: uniqueness

The first step in making vivid, credible, characters lies in distinguishing each character from every other character. It is through the very process of rendering your characters unique that they begin to live and breathe. 

Why is uniqueness important?

In order to have a story with range and depth it needs to, at various times, provoke a wide range of emotions in the reader. How do we do that? Through creating characters that span the emotional spectrum.

Swain writes:

“Liking characters is vital to your reader. So is disliking, and feeling pity and contempt and respect and tenderness and sexual excitement.


“Because without such variations of emotional reaction, the reader can’t care what happens to your people.

“If he doesn’t care, he can achieve no sense of inner tension when they’re endangered.”

Swain goes on to list five things that can make a character unique. I'm going to go through each of these points in the next few days. Today, let's begin with a discussion of the dominant impression.

1. Determine the dominant impression (also called an adjective of description)

When you meet someone new, they make a certain impression on you. One fellow I met, I’ll call him John, went on to become one of my best friends, but when I first met him I thought he was dangerous. Specifically, I thought he was a perpetually scowling, six-foot-four-inch mountain of very intimidating muscle. I couldn’t ever see myself getting into a car alone with him and, say, driving along a lonely stretch of highway. 

As so often happens, my first impression was WAY off, but, then, first impressions often are.

Dwight V. Swain urges us to ask ourselves what image we want our readers to receive. What’s the first impression you want your character to make on the reader? Do you want the reader to think a character is tidy, dignified, cruel, sweet, old, beautiful, slim, smart, angry, touchy, tranquil, shy or something else entirely. (Here’s a page with a great many adjectives of description.)

Keep in mind that the first impression is just that, a first impression. First impressions are often misleading and we go on to revise them. (In murder mysteries first impressions are almost always false, though rarely completely so. I’ll talk more about this in a later post on writing a cozy mystery.) But that’s good! The first impression is merely the beginning of that character’s arc.

When you’re devising a character’s first impression keep in mind that characters don’t have to be likable, just memorable

For example, recall Sherlock’s introduction in the series of the same name. He whipped a corpse! NOT a likable character—not initially—but very interesting. Also, recall Jim Moriarty (played by Andrew Scott). Moriarty was one of my favorite characters but I didn’t think he was likable.

That’s it for today! I’ll pick up this series on Friday when we’ll examine the pros and cons of sculpting a character that plays to type.

Question: What is your protagonist’s dominant impression?

Photo credit: "Oskar running in the snow II" by Tambako The Jaguar under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0.

Wednesday, November 20

How To Write A Gripping Scene

How To Write A Gripping Scene

This material is drawn from Chapter Four of Dwight Swain's book Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Dwight Swain writes:

"What I offer here is merely a beginning. [...] Once you've mastered the elements of the form; experience and study of published copy will teach you how to vary it in terms of your own taste and judgement."

In other words, this is just a beginning, a hasty sketch. In the end, you are your own best teacher. As in writing, so in life: as you come upon new information extract what resonates with you and ignore the rest. 

Today, I'm going to share my notes from Techniques regarding scenes. The next post in this series will be about sequels, and how scenes and sequels work together to create a story.

What is a story?

A story is a chain of scenes and sequels. 

Scenes are units of conflict, of struggle.

Sequels are units of transition that daisy chain scenes together.

Today I'm going to talk about scenes, what they are and how to make them more gripping.

What is a scene?

A scene is the powerhouse of conflict and struggle that moves your story forward.

As Dwight V. Swain writes:

"[A scene is a] blow-by-blow account of somebody's time-unified effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition."

And, of course, by "somebody" we mean the focal character.

What does a scene do? What are its functions? 

a. To provide interest for the reader.
b. To move your story forward.

Let's take these in turn.

a. A scene captures the readers attention.

How does a scene capture a reader's attention? Glad you asked!

A scene pits the hero--or at least the point of view character--against an opposing force.

DS holds that each and every scene must provoke this question in the reader: "Will the character win against the opposition?"

b. A scene moves the story forward.

DS writes that each and every scene you write should change your character's situation. Note, though, that change doesn't always constitute progress toward the character's goal. (But progress always involves change).


A scene is unified by time. There are no pauses, no breaks, in its flow.

Scene Structure

Here is the skeleton of a scene:

a. Goal
b. Conflict
c. Disaster

Boxing Example

This is DS's example.

Goal: Our protagonist wants to knock out the other boxer.

Conflict: Wary circling, "feinting, punching, counterpunching".

The protagonist lands a blow, the other boxer goes down. 
The protagonist slips up, the antagonist lands a knockout punch. 
The protagonist goes down.

Disaster: The protagonist tries to rally but he can't. He loses the fight.

The three parts of a scene:

a. Goals

In a scene your hero will want one of three kinds of things.

a. Possession of
Possession of something. A girl, a job, a jewel. Possession of treasure, of something desired.

b. Relief from
Relief from blackmail, domination by others, fear, and so on.

c. Revenge for
Revenge for a slight, a lost, a betrayal, and so on.

Goals are concrete

i. "A goal is not a goal until it's specific and concrete and immediate enough for you to take some sort of action toward achieving it."

"Ideally, this decision should focus on a target so explicit that you might photograph your hero performing the act to which he aspired."

ii. Your character must decide to act.

He can't be forced into action. Even if the hero is being blackmailed, they have to decide to purse the goal of their own free will (or so it must appear).

Goals: Explicit and Implicit

There are two kinds of goals:

- Goals of achievement (explicit)
- Goals of resistance (implicit)

This example is courtesy of DS:

John, our focus character, is on a date with Suzy, the girl he wants to ask to be his wife. (Keep in mind Techniques was originally copyrighted in 1965.)

George, John's rival for Suzy's affections, breaks up John's date and tells him never to see Suzy again.

Immediately, John acquires a goal: to prevent George from taking Suzy from him. This goal is implicit. It is one of resistance. 

George, John's nemesis, has a goal of achievement: to win Suzy's hand. 

Goals of achievement and goals of resistance complement each other.

Whenever the villain acquires a goal of achievement the hero acquires a goal of resistance, and vice versa.

b. Conflict

DS repeats this several times: Conflict is opposition.

Conflict implies "two entities struggling to attain mutually incompatible goals. For one to win, the other must lose."

The hero struggles against the antagonistic force that opposes him, or her, attaining the goal. This opposition between the hero and the antagonistic force, this clash, provides the opposition that represents the engine of a story, it is the fuel that generates narrative drive


When a character meets with opposition the hero must state his case. Your readers need to know what your hero is going to attempt.

If your hero lets the opposition get the better of him, if he walks away when he meets resistance, then we conclude either:

i. The hero didn't really have that goal.
ii. The hero lacks strength of character. In this case, the reader will lose interest.

After the initial opposition has played out, additional difficulties must be brought into the situation to keep up the momentum.

- More hindrances
- More obstacles
- More complications

Make it harder for the hero to win his goal.

How is this accomplished?

The difficulty level must be increased and the stakes must escalate.

DS writes: "Emphasize the strength of the opposition. Build up the forces that block ... [your hero]."

For example, let your hero "receive new and unanticipated information that makes the situation worse."

c. Disaster

Disaster is a hook.

"A hook is a devise for catching, holding, sustaining, or pulling anything--in this case, a reader."

Here's the question we want the reader to ask when he/she is presented with a new obstacle to the hero achieving his/her goal: What will the focal character do now?

Also, a disaster is a "[s]udden and extraordinary misfortune; a calamity."

The end of a scene must "raise an intriguing question for the future--a question designed to keep your reader reading. / To that end, no better device has ever been conceived than the confrontation of your focal character with disaster."

(DS notes that the disaster doesn't have to be actual, it can be potential.)

A reverse disaster

A reverse disaster is where your focal character launches "some diabolically clever scheme to do in his foes," one that you just know is going to backfire in some way.

In this case the hooks you use to pull along the reader will be through questions like:

- "Are things really going to work out this well, this easily, for Hero?"

- "Will Villain fall for such a stunt? Or has he some trick up his sleeve with which to turn the tables?"

Disadvantages of the reversed disaster.

- It takes "initiative away from your focal character and gives it to the opposition. This forces your hero to wait [...] passively to see how said opposition is going to react."

The Scene: A Summary

Whatever you do, always conclude your scene with the story "pointed into the future: some issue raised that will keep your reader turning pages, ever on the edge of his chair as he wonders just what's going to happen now!"

That's it for scenes. In the next post in this series we'll look at sequels and then, finally, turn to how scenes and sequels fit together in such a way that they generate a story with just the right amount of narrative drive.

Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "Its Big Country" by Zach Dischner under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, November 15

How To Evoke Emotion In Readers: The Focal Character

How To Evoke Emotion In Readers: The Focal Character

Today I'm going to talk about focal characters. I'm doing this because I want to examine how a focal character can be used to evoke reader identification and, therefore, emotion. The concept of the focal character is fundamental for a number of others--scenes and sequels for example--so I'm giving it a post of it's own.

My purpose here is to explore tricks and tips--methods--we as writers can self-consciously use to craft characters, strong vivid interesting characters, that will 'hook into' our readers emotions.

This post continues my exploration of Dwight V. Swain's marvellous book The Techniques of the Selling Writer

What do we want our stories to do?

We wish to manipulate the emotions of readers through our stories.

Sounds cold-blooded, doesn't it? But think of it this way. You go to a horror movie. What would happen if you weren't scared? You wouldn't give the movie a good review--or at least I wouldn't. 

What if you saw a romance movie and never felt the pang of love lost? Or an adventure movie and never once found yourself on the edge of your seat, breathless, wondering how the hero would get out of the fix he'd found himself in?

Given this--given that stories are all about the evocation and manipulation of emotion--the question for writers is: how does one evoke and manipulate emotion?

Answer: through characters. Specifically, one manipulates the emotions of our readers through manipulating the circumstances of our focal character.

So, really, what we need to know is how to create a focal character that has the capacity to evoke emotion in others. 

Evoking Emotion

As DS writes, "Feeling is a thing you build through manipulation of motivation and reaction."

(Note: For more information on motivation-reaction pairs see the post: How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion.)

1. Recognize that events by themselves lack meaning or emotion.

DS uses the example of a rainstorm. Let's say you're a farmer and your crops are languishing during a drought. In that case a rainstorm would be welcome. Ecstatically welcome.

On the other hand, imagine you're in light summer clothing and you've just paid a couple of hundred dollars to have your hair done. Also, you aren't wearing a coat or carrying an umbrella. Then it starts to rain. In this case the rainstorm would be most unwelcome.

The point is that events only begin to matter when they matter to someone. (And not just any someone. Your focal character. But we'll get to that in a minute.)

Instances/events have to be specific.

Take the example of the rainstorm. How much rain was there? Was it a drizzle or did the rain come down in a torrential downpour? What was the wind like? Strong? Weak? When did the rainstorm occur? Where? And so on.

Be specific. Added together all these details create the specific instance and bring the rainstorm to life, make it real.

You need a yardstick.

DS writes: 

"A thing matters only insofar as it relates to and affects and is judged by people. [...] We decide how significant a thing is by the way a particular somebody behaves when faced with a specific instance./In other words, a thing isn't just significant. It's significant to somebody."

Whether an event is perceived as good or bad depends on how your focal character reacts to it. 

The yardstick needs to be a character.

"The bombing raid is rated by whether we or our enemies are on the receiving end. [...] Chocolate bars are good, if I'm hungry; bad, if I'm trying to reduce; and so on."

Someone needs to feel, to think, to judge. This can only be a character.

Judgements are made with FEELING rather than LOGIC or REASON.

"Pure water is clear," is a fact. So is "the number two is even". Here's another one: The cat is on the mat.

Generally speaking, a fact matters to a person to the degree it affects them. If the fact affects them positively they'll feel positively about it ("Our company is giving out bonuses this year!") and vice versa. 

As Dwight Swain writes:

"Seven inches of rain in a night is a fact, so long as you merely see an item about it in the paper. Let it wash through your living room and ruin two thousand dollars' worth of furnishings, and it takes on true meaning and significance for you."

2. Your Focal Character is your reader's emotional compass.

I included the material, above, because it emphasizes the importance of feeling and judgement--of a yardstick--but all that has simply been to lead up to this discussion of the focal character. 

A story isn't about something out there in the external world, it's about the reactions of the characters you've created. It's about what happens to them and how they react to it.

Your story world is going to be filled with facts. These facts will only matter to your reader to the extent they effect someone, a character. The focal character.

A story concerns the focal character's reactions to what happens, to the facts and events of the story. A story is about "his feelings; his emotions; his impulses; his dreams; his ambitions; his clashing drives and inner conflicts."

How do you make the focal character care about what's going on within the story world you create? (And, by extension, make the reader care?)

You give the focal character a goal, and you spell out what forces oppose him/her reaching that goal. You also spell out the stakes; that is, what will happen if the focal character achieves his goal, as well as what will happen if he fails to achieve it. Further, when you're spelling out the stakes, focus on what the focal character would win or lose emotionally

Facts are just facts, we're interested in emotions. Feelings.

The three main functions of the focal character:

i. "To provide continuity."

However much time passes, or places visited, the focal character gives your story continuity. It unites its disparate elements into a unified whole.

ii. "To give meaning."

It is your focal character's reactions that will determine whether a reader sees a certain event, a certain happening, as important or inconsequential. 

DS writes:

"Meaning ... is always a conclusion you and I draw about something from the way a particular somebody behaves when faced with a specific instance." 

For example, The reader's "attitude toward the rainstorm we cited earlier will be determined by whether the rain helps or handicaps the focal character".

In Indiana Jones and Raider's of the Lost Ark we have a trailer scene where the focal character, Indiana Jones, struggles to win a dangerous prize. We see him save a man's life only to be betrayed. We see his prize, a golden statue, taken from him and his life unjustly endangered. And we see his vulnerability--his fear of snakes. 

This is the context in which we view Dr. Bellog taking the golden idol from Indy. Everything Indy did before this point gave that event its meaning and shaped/determined our reactions to it.

iii. "To create feeling."

The focal character creates feelings in your reader. DS writes, "The biggest single reason that a focal character exists is to evoke them [emotions]."

Here's how it works:

Your reader needs a focal character, someone to either approve or disapprove of. Without an emotional compass your reader will have no feeling either way--either that or they'll be confused.

Take away: Your reader exists within the story by identifying with your focal character. It is this identification that sucks him into the story world.

3. Focal Character versus Viewpoint Character

The focal character is not the viewpoint character. Further, the focal character need not be the hero/protagonist.

Viewpoint character:
"A viewpoint character is someone through whose eyes we see all or part of a story. In effect, we get inside his skin."

Focal Character:
"... the person around whom the yarn revolves ..."

The focal character "will be the central and most important character, because he's the one who determines your reader's [emotional] orientation."

For example, "Sherlock Holmes is a focal character; the viewpoint is Watson's. In Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade is the focal character .... the viewpoint, author-objective."

I'd say that in Bram Stoker's Dracula the viewpoint is first-person and floats between characters, depending on which journal or piece of correspondence is being read, but the focal character--the person whose story it is--is Dracula. 

Okay! So much for focal characters. The next post in this series will be on how to craft a scene your reader won't be able to put down. Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "Untitled" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, November 14

How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion

How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion
One of my favorite books on writing is Dwight V. Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer because there he discusses, in depth, how to construct characters that evoke emotion in readers. 

The following information is contained in chapter three of Mr. Swain's book, these are my notes. I'm sharing them with you because no one ever laid out the whys and wherefores of how to elicit emotion in readers the way Mr. Swain does here.

As I've said before and I'll no doubt say again, everyone's different. If what Mr. Swain says works for you, if it helps you, then great! Use it. If not, ignore it. Different strokes.

How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion

Dwight V. Swain writes,

"Feeling is a thing you build through manipulation of motivation and reaction."

Specifically, feeling is built through the manipulation of motivation-reaction units.

Motivation And Reaction Units

First off, what's a motivation and reaction unit? Before I--or, rather, Dwight V. Swain--lay it all out, let's look at an example:
"Now, with a roar, the red Jag picked up speed, careening recklessly as it hurtled down the drive and out into the highway. Stiff-lipped, Brad turned from the window and ground out his cigarette."
Not bad. There's definitely emotion there. I'd be interested in reading on. Let's sweep the curtain aside and look at how Mr. Swain did this.

First, though, some terminology.

The anatomy of a motivation-reaction unit:

1. Motivating stimulus
2. Character reaction
2.a: Feeling
2.b: Action
2.c: Speech

How to construct a motivation-reaction unit:

At it's simplest, a motivation-reaction unit consists of just two sentences. The first sentence contains the motivating stimulus and the second sentence contains your character's reaction.

So, for instance, in the above example:

Motivating stimulus:
"Now, with a roar, the red Jag picked up speed, careening recklessly as it hurtled down the drive and out into the highway."

Character reaction:
"Stiff-lipped, Brad turned from the window and ground out his cigarette."

How to write a motivation-reaction unit:

a. "Write a sentence without your character."
b. "Follow it with a sentence about your character."

Let's unpack that.

a. Write a sentence that doesn't mention your character.

The motivating sentence has nothing to do with how the character sees the world, it describes how the world is. Dwight V. Swain notes that this is important because, if you mention the character in the motivating sentence, that mention could be enough to turn what is supposed to be a motivation into a reaction.

b. Write a sentence about the character's reactions.

While the motivation sentence was about the world, the reaction sentence is about the character. "It describes how he behaves in consequence of the action that takes place" in the first sentence.

For instance, in DS's example:

Second sentence:
"Stiff-lipped, Brad turned from the window and ground out his cigarette."

Stiff-lipped --> indicates Brad's state of mind.
Grinds out his cigarette --> indicates Brad's state of mind.

Note: You don't have to limit yourself to one sentence. "Often two, or three, or even more sentences may be needed in order to present a given motivation or reaction with proper impact."

That said, if you're a beginning writer, Mr. Swain advises you to keep to one sentence each for motivation and reaction, at least until you feel you've gotten the hang of it.

Now let's look at the motivating stimulus and character response in more detail.

The motivating stimulus & character response

What is the motivating stimulus? It's "anything outside your character to which he reacts."

A good motivating stimulus will have great significance to your character, it will be pertinent to your story and it will be motive. That is, it will act to push the events in your story forward.

A good character reaction will show--or at least imply--the character's feeling, his action and his speech.

Why does this work? In a word context

To a "considerable degree, your readers will draw their conclusions as to the meaning of the focal character's reaction on the basis of context". In this case the context is "the stimulus or motivation that provokes it".

This works especially well if this reaction is in response to an "objectively written, non-introspective, physical reaction".

"Thus, a film editor may place a close-up of an actor's face directly after a shot of an actress lying dead in a coffin. Invariably, the audience will thereupon interpret the actor's expression, however blank, as one of grief."

So, if "you want a particular reaction pick a stimulus that will evoke it. A good external motivation makes your character's consequent behavior completely logical to your reader."

Two tips:
- Link motivation and reaction tightly.
- See each motivating stimulus as your character sees it. See it with her background, her attitudes, her dynamics and insights. THEN let her react in character.

That's it! I hope something about this discussion was helpful to you. This information represents only a fraction of what Dwight V. Swain writes about in chapter three of Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Photo credit: "Sunset Bliss..." by Vinoth Chandar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, October 13

Techniques of the Selling Writer: How To Create A Story With An Interesting Hero & A Satisfying Ending

Techniques of the Selling Writer: How To Create A Story With An Interesting Hero & A Satisfying Ending

Today I'm going to talk about how to craft a story so that not only will the average reader find the ending satisfying but you'll also have created, in the process, a well-rounded, sympathetic, likeable hero.

What follows, the ideas, come from one of the best books on the craft of writing ever written: Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight V. Swain. Though the ideas are Mr. Swain's I've put them in my own words. And, by the way, this is all from just one chapter of Mr. Swain's book, chapter 5: Fiction Strategy.

The Hero's Motivation

What do heroes seek? They seek what we all, on some level, seek: security, safety.

For example, take Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He doesn't seek his own safety, true, he seeks the safety of the world because if the Nazi's capture the ark they'll win the war and that would be, to put it mildly, bad.

What does a hero (what does anyone) need to feel safe and secure? Mr. Swain argued that the hero needs to feel he controls his destiny. That is, he needs to feel that his choices and actions are related to what happens in the (story) world in such a way that what he does matters.

To put this same idea another way: in a story world there needs to be a connection between what the character does (his DEEDS) and what happens (his REWARDS).

The question: Just how do we build this connection between deeds and rewards?

Let's go back a bit.

At the beginning of the story your hero isn't going to feel safe and secure. She isn't going to feel that there's a satisfying connection between her deeds and her rewards. The hero is going to have to fight for this, it's part of her quest.

For example, at the start of Star Wars IV: A New Hope Luke lives with his aunt and uncle on their farm on Tatooine. Does Luke feel he controls his destiny? No

If Luke had a choice, he'd be off to the Academy but his aunt and uncle won't let him go. By the end of the movie, as a direct result of the choices Luke has made, he is in charge of his own destiny. Case in point: he made the choice to ignore the targeting computer and, as Obi-Wan Kenobi instructed, use the force. The outcome of the entire movie (not to mention the known universe!) hangs on this choice and he is rewarded. Luke achieves his goal, the destruction of the Death Star.

Or take another terrific Harrison Ford movie, Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark. What does Dr. Belloq keep saying to Indy? At the end of the opening sequence he says: "Dr. Jones, again we see that there is nothing you possess which I cannot take away." Then, again, at the midpoint, just before he seals Jones inside the Well of Souls, he taunts him by saying, "So, once again, Jones, what was briefly yours is now mine."

What Belloq is saying here is: You don't control your destiny, I do

That's what the hero has to wrench control of by the end, that's his great task, to control his destiny through the choices he makes.

The Hero's Deeds Need To Be The Cause of His/Her Rewards

I've already mentioned that there has to be a certain kind of cause and effect relationship between DEEDS and REWARDS for a story's ending to be truly satisfying. (Remember, I'm talking about the kind of stories where the hero wins the day, stories like those behind all the Indiana Jones movies). Rewards must be meted out on the basis of deeds. Your hero's behavior--her choices--must determine her fate.

Specifically, Good Deeds Must Be Rewarded

As DVS says, having a causal relationship between a character's deeds and their rewards isn't enough. Good deeds must be rewarded.

The Hero Must Deserve To Win

Let's say we've built a story, a world, in which deeds are the cause of rewards and in which good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are (eventually) punished. It follows that your hero must demonstrate he's a good guy if we want him to achieve his goal in a plausible manner. (Which isn't to say that he can't make the occasional mistake in the beginning.)

How does the hero demonstrate what end of the moral/ethical compass he's on?

In this post I'm going over this material using broad strokes, but I'd like to slow down at this point and go over some specific examples DVS gives (this is all from chapter 5 of Techniques of the Selling Writer). These examples are designed to show ways, small ways, in which your hero can demonstrate to readers what kind of guy he is.

Also, although DVS couches this in terms of morality I think it could just as well be put in terms of that holy grail of character creation: likability.

Example 1: A clerk gives your hero too much change. It would be easy to keep the change and walk away. But that's not what a hero does. He gives the change back.

I'm going to get to this in a later post, but memorable characters--and memorability is a very good thing; after all, it's hard to like a character you can't remember!--are (in general) extreme characters. Giving back 25 cents because it would be wrong to take it is extreme, and in your story world that's a good thing.

Example 2: Your hero dings someone's fender in the parking lot but no one noticed. Does he leave a note taking responsibility or just drive away? 

I think many people would drive away, which gives you an opportunity to show that your hero isn't like other people.

The Hero Must Demonstrate, Through His Choices And Actions, That He Deserves To Win

Let's focus on the end of the story. At the end of the story the hero is presented with a choice. The specifics of this choice should come as a surprise to the reader ("Marion, don't look at the light!" "Trust the force, Luke") but the general dimensions of the choice--good against evil--are not new themes. You've been foreshadowing this climactic confrontation, this decision, since the opening lines.

What is this confrontation? 

The confrontation is, classically, between the hero and the villain, or--using different terminology--between the protagonist and the antagonist. Fundamentally, it's a moral dilemma. Right against wrong, good against evil, love against hate. There should be two paths before the hero, one leads to the dark side, the other to the light. The hero makes his decision and if (when) he decides to do the right thing, the two fight (either actually or metaphorically).

Everything must hang on what the hero chooses to do. And by everything I mean EVERYTHING. If we haven't made it so that the hero's life, his love's life, his travelling companions' lives, his friends lives, his village's existence and, possibly, the fate and happiness of everyone in the known universe, hangs on our hero's choice then we've taken a wrong turn somewhere. (I exaggerate, but only a little.)

The Hero's Choice: The Path of Darkness & The Path of Light

The paths are mutually exclusive. We've established that the hero's choice is going to be between two paths, the path of darkness and the path of light. Each path, each choice, has an outcome that is antithetical to the other. If the hero chooses the path of darkness then whatever the path of light would have brought about, resulted in, is irrevocably, irretrievably, gone. And vice versa.

The Hero's Choice Must Resolve The Dilemma

This seems obvious, but I thought I'd say it anyway. The general dimension of the problem, good against evil, will still be there but this PARTICULAR problem will be finally and absolutely resolved, one way or the other. If the problem isn't resolved then your readers aren't going to feel satisfied by the ending and that's what our goal is.

For instance, in A New Hope Luke must decide between safety and trust. On the one hand, Obi-Wan Kenobi is telling him to turn off his equipment and trust the Force. On the other hand, his inner critic is telling him not to be stupid--there is no such thing as 'the Force' and, even if there was, he couldn't harness it--just be smart and use the equipment. 

The safe course is the selfish course because then, if it fails, it wouldn't be Luke's fault. (Sure, they'd all be dead, but, still, not-his-fault.) He was just doing the sensible thing. 

The path of trust is the true course. And it's risky. It likely won't work. It's not the easy way. Or even the sane way. But there's something about Luke, about who he is: he's strong in the force, like his father. He's special. And when he trusts that, when he believes it enough to act on it, to go 'all in,' then he wins the day.

The Path of Light And The Path of Darkness: Selflessness vs Selfishness

I've been talking about good vs evil, the path of light vs the path of darkness which, really, has been a bunch of handwaving. So let's cash out these terms, how I've been using them. 

In our story universe good is defined by one simple thing, SELFLESSNESS, just as bad is defined by just one thing, it's opposite, SELFISHNESS.

In your story universe the path of light, the good/moral/right thing will always be the unselfish thing. Further, doing the unselfish thing will always bring the hero all kinds of pain and misery. Conversely, the path of darkness, the evil road, will always lead to the selfish choice. Doing what's best for the hero. Making life wonderful for him even though, because of his choice, countless people will suffer and die. 

At this point you might well wonder, "Why would anyone choose to do the selfless thing if the odds of winning are slim to none and you'll lose everything if your plan doesn't succeed?"

Mr. Swain has an answer: Because of EMOTION. Because of who the hero is, intrinsically. So, you see, it all comes back to CHARACTER. Even if it would be more intelligent (certainly more self-preserving) to follow the wrong road, the hero follows his feelings instead. Remember, the test the hero goes through is one of character, not logic or reason or even intelligence.

This has been a long post, but before I end it I'd like to briefly talk about other kinds of cause and effect structures.

Other Kinds of Cause-Effect Story Structures

So far, I've talked about a story universe in which a person's deeds determine how they are rewarded in the end. (It's like that scene from The Mummy where Evelyn 'Evy' Carnahan whispers to Beni, "You know, nasty little fellows such as yourself always get their comeuppance." Great line.)

But it's not always like this. We've all read and enjoyed stories where a person's deeds are completely uncoupled from their rewards. But, here, that's not the kind of world we've set out to build. We set out to build a world that is both just and fair. 

But you don't have to, you can set up any sort of cause-effect relationship you want, and they can all work, they just appeal to different sorts of audiences and require a different sort of structure. That said, in North America at least, you probably won't have as large an audience for those kinds of stories. 

Oh, and one more thing. If you want to see Dwight V. Swain's principles at work, read The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. It's one of my favorite urban fantasy series and each book is better than the one before--and that's saying something. Highly recommended, not just for what you'll learn from them regarding technique but also for the pure pleasure of it.

This post is itself a kind of foreshadowing. This post, suitably tweaked and transformed, will appear as a chapter in my upcoming, as yet unnamed, book on the craft of writing.

by Kevin Dooley under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.