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Posts Tagged characters
And then there were three (NYNs)… Do you find plot more difficult than character? Plus the midpoint of Blade Runner
In writing the book, I’ve been pinning down the ultimate essentials – what a plot is, what it needs – whether you’re a genre author, a literary author, or anywhere on the spectrum between the two. Indeed, if you want to defy convention, are there some story and plot principles that still hold? I found there were. I also found that even an apparently loosely structured book followed a few simple patterns.
But honestly, Roz, you’ve been promising this book for most of the year.
Yeah, why did it take me so much longer than characters? As I wrote up the tutorials – starting from blogposts and mentoring notes – I found that each example spawned many possible discussions. There were as many exceptions as rules, possibilities upon possibilities for making a story rich, or exciting, or surprising, or heartbreaking. I have come away with this: although there are certain fundamentals, the department of plot and storytelling is much more tricky, finely balanced and infinitely varied than the department of characters.
You’d think it would be the other way around, because people provide the heart of a book. And aren’t they the most unique element of any story? No, by comparison, fictional characters follow a number of rules we already understand from life – those of how real people behave, are motivated and react. But a plot – what you do with your characters, themes and story metaphors – can go absolutely anywhere, especially in non-genre fiction. Good plotters invent new ways to use events and ideas. Writing this book has taken me on my own journey of understanding. I’ve ended up with a deeper appreciation of the infinite versatility of stories, and indeed a greater sense of wonder.
Or maybe it means only that I find plotting more difficult than creating characters. I wouldn’t be the first author with literary leanings who felt this. And in case this all sounds airy-fairy, let me assure you that the book is about practical advice and examples. Plus games, of course.
To whet your appetite, this is a post I was going to expand for the book and rework with prose examples, but eventually tackled another way. If you’re an old-timer here you might recognise it.
Midpoints on a continuum of change – Blade Runner
My memory does the very opposite of total recall (see what I did there?), so I hazarded that it was where Roy finally finds Pris and they discover they are the last replicants left alive. Or was it the scene where Rachael comes to Deckard’s apartment, they have a heart-to heart about the fact she’s a replicant and get romantic. Or was it both – as each significant story strand might have a midpoint…
When we checked we found the Roy/Pris scene is past the middle. The actual middle is the scene where Deckard’s boss tells him he will have to kill Rachael, even though she’s not one of the renegade bunch in his original brief. We’d both forgotten two other strong turning-point contenders – the scene where Deckard kills the first replicant, Zhora, and feels unexpectedly bad about it. Or the scene where Deckard is nearly killed by Leon and is rescued by Rachael (who has ventured into scuzzy places where nice girls never go). Midpoints galore, it seems.
Backtrack for a moment. What’s the midpoint anyway and why do we bother to identify it? It’s a moment where the story significantly shifts gear. Readers (and moviegoers) seem to have an internal clock, and generally like it if this shift comes roughly half-way through the story.
Here are some typical forms a midpoint can take.
• It can be a false victory – perhaps the main character has apparently got what they wanted and discovered it was a shallow goal or has got them in big trouble. (Deckard has after all just managed to shoot the first of the replicants he is hunting.)
• It can look like the original quest went horribly wrong and now they have to sort out a much more involved mess.
• It might be an echo of a scene from much earlier in the story, but done for different, more serious reasons.
Whichever it is, at the midpoint everything turns grave. It is a moment when the conflict and journey become internal as well as external. The character’s need is deeper, truer. The consequences become more significant. The characters pass a point of no return.
Back to Blade Runner
The reason we couldn’t remember the actual midpoint of Blade Runner is that there are significant shifts for the characters all the way through. The movie is a continuum of internal change. The characters are transforming inside all the time, discovering deeper needs, acting in the grip of impulses they have never before faced, getting into deeper trouble and discovering profounder joys – which increases what is at stake. Also, there are two protagonists. This is one of the reasons the story has such momentum. It builds and builds, propelling the characters towards what will be the most significant moment of their lives. And every scene has a sense of change.
If you build a story so that every scene commits the characters more drastically, unexpectedly and personally to their path, it will be engrossing.
The ebook of Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel is now available on pre-order. It will go on live sale on Twelfth Night, 5th January, and if you order beforehand you can get a special pre-order price.
‘On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me… Twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, ten lords….’ Is that too complicated for an opening scene?
Meanwhile, let’s discuss! Which do you find more difficult – plot or character? I’d also be interested to know what you write – genre, non-genre – to see if there’s any pattern.
And merry Christmas.
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My guest this week had a real struggle to get her novel into shape. She was used to seeking inspiration from music, but found that nothing she listened to was helping. In her head was a jumble of characters and voices, all clamouring but making no sense. Then she happened upon a video of her own daughter-in-law, singing an a capella composition of her own that layered and alternated lines from random blogs. This quirky piece gave her the courage to put her characters together – and see where the harmonies came. She is Rochelle Jewel Shapiro and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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My guest this week has a taste for the adventurous. Her novel is set in the pirate-infested waters of the West Indies in 1717, and her characters are unwittingly pulled into a hazardous sea journey. The music that sustained this imaginative voyage is epic and foreboding, but not without its lighter elements. My guest discovered in her research that sailors used dance to ward off boredom on the interminable days at sea, so she wrote a scene to the soundtrack of a reel. But it became more than dance; when the characters shrugged off their tensions they began to behave in unexpected and delightful ways. In case you’re imagining it’s all lace, beards and cutlasses, though, there’s a distinctly modern note at the end: Moby makes an appearance (no, not the whale). The author is Dianne Greenlay (one of my co-conspirators at the League of Extraordinary Authors) and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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I’ve already discussed a few general points in a previous post – scenes with a lot of characters and shifting point of view , dialogue and description. Today I’m going to look at passage of time (modelled here by Dave).
When is it?
One of the key questions when we come into any scene is this: when is it happening?
Movies and prose handle this in different ways.
Suppose your story features a man who’s refurbishing a derelict bar. In a movie, it’s shown with a sequence of scenes. In one, he is getting to work, pulling old cupboards off the walls and uprooting obsolete appliances. In the next scene, it’s clean, the floorboards are sanded and he’s opening for business.
Because film is an external storytelling medium (we watch it from the outside) we accept that this cut is telling us several days or weeks have passed. We know we don’t stay with the characters for every second of their experience.
But in prose, a cut like this might feel too abrupt. Because prose is internal, and we walk in the characters’ shoes, a sudden jump in time can feel like too much of a lurch. We need a linking sentence or two to ease the way, drawing attention to what’s changed. Many writers who are weaned on movies leave these details out.
A sense of time
As well as evidence that time has passed, we also need a sense of it passing. If you have other characters or storylines, you can cut away to them, then return to your bar, which is now finished. This might create the gap you need.
But if your story follows just one character, you need to create the passage of time in your narration.
If we watch a movie we’ll do this ourselves. We’ll assume the character spent a week or a month working on the bar non stop. In prose, we need you to add this element, even if it’s only two lines, saying ‘I had no time to worry about anything. I was sanding, sawing, painting, ordering crockery. I flopped into bed at night and rose with the dawn.’ Indeed this is the prose version of the movie technique of condensing a sequence of events into a montage. (See, there are some techniques that translate well!)
Prose fiction has to fill more gaps than a movie does. In prose, we need to keep the connection with the reader’s mind, rather than chopping the experience into pieces.
What examples of passage of time have you liked – both in movies and in prose? Let’s discuss!
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My guest this week is releasing her debut novel, a tale of love, loss and friendship centring on a pair of twins. She says that music was her anchor while she was brainstorming ideas and exploring the characters, helping to deepen her characters and refine her plot points. Her soundtrack ranges from the mournful to the joyous, with tracks by Iggy Pop, Evanescence, Robbie Williams and Samuel Barber. She is Christina Banach and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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Do you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Have you cut your writing teeth on the wisdom of the hallowed screenwriting gurus (McKee, Field and Goldman)? Are you a screenwriter who’s making the switch to novels?
If so, you’ll certainly know some great storytelling tricks, but the two disciplines are different. Some movie techniques simply don’t translate to the page.
Indeed, if you’re writing your novel as though it’s a movie in your head, your ideas might not work as powerfully as they should.
I’ve already discussed a few general points in a previous post – scenes with a lot of characters, short, choppy scenes and point of view. There are other crucial differences between screen and page, so over the next few posts I’m going to look at them in detail.
Film is a visual medium. If we’re watching a scene in a movie where two characters were talking, the words they say are not as noticeable as the characters’ expressions, their actions and the way they do things – whether it’s picking a lock, walking home late at night, sharpening a sword or getting progressively and endearingly sozzled. And so the actors’ moves, the camera angles and the emphasis of the lighting are telling the story just as much as any words the characters are uttering. Indeed, you could probably watch a well-made dialogue scene with the sound off and still understand the thrust of it. An argument, a reconciliation, etc.
On the page, however, the prose does everything. But what I often find with writers who are tuned to the screen is that they don’t realise how much more work a dialogue scene in prose has to do. They haven’t got actors, or a lighting crew, or a set designer, or a composer who will add the other pieces to take the story forward.
They’re good at getting their characters talking, and sounding natural, but their dialogue scenes lack half the information they need to move the story on. They’re imagining it on a screen, and they’re writing what the characters would say and do, but they miss out the impact of the scene’s actions, realisations, changes in mood and plot revelations. All this is part of the story – and it has to come through the characters’ lines and your narration.
If you’ve learned your writing from movies, add these tips to your arsenal for good prose dialogue scenes:
Banter and quips In a movie, atmospheric natter and irrelevant quips are a great way to create a sense of a mood or character. On the page, this quickly looks aimless. Also in a movie, you can have them breaking into a bank vault while bantering – the story is happening at the same time as the visuals. On the page, we can only see one thing at a time. When using inconsequential chat, social niceties and companionable remarks, keep it concise, or find a way to make it purposeful.
Internal reactions The screenplay-tuned writer often doesn’t use internal dialogue, because an actor would add the expressions. Also, most films show a story from a third-person point of view. But in prose you can show what a character thinks and feels. Either you can do this with a close third-person point of view, or a first-person point of view, or by showing reactions through a physical act like clenching a fist. If a character is keeping their reactions hidden from the other characters in the scene, make sure we see they are seething – or celebrating – under the surface.
Silence, pauses and non-verbals Remember we see dialogue as well as hear it – don’t forget to include the characters’ reactions and non-verbal responses in your scene. Use your narration to create pauses. Make them sigh, look out of the window. Let them change their expression.
Prose is your background music Take charge of the scene’s environment. Create atmosphere through your description of the setting. A dripping tap in a moment of silence might increase a sense of tension. Rain might echo a character’s sadness or make a happy moment seem deliriously unreal.
There’s a lot more about writing good dialogue scenes in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2. And Nail Your Novel 3 will concentrate on plot – so if that sounds like your cup of tea, sign up for my newsletter to get word as soon as it’s available.
Let’s discuss! do you find it tricky to write good dialogue scenes? Do you have any tips that helped you?
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I’m reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness, and its style is rather striking. It’s an omniscient narrator hopping between a lot of heads. The dialogue is run into the rest of the prose, with no punctuation to distinguish it from the rest of the prose. Yes, no quote marks. Not even a dash. Sometimes the dialogue has no tags to tell us who’s speaking – or indeed that it is speech. When the characters speak, it’s not even presented in separate sentences, let alone paragraphed.
A typical spread looks like this
Dense, long paragraphs. Rather offputting, isn’t it? It looks like the book will be a horrendous muddle and heavy going. Dave – who will give most styles a fair crack – tossed it down in disgust, muttering about pretentious gimmicks.
It’s certainly risky to mess with the conventions of dialogue. I frequently see novice manuscripts where all the dialogue is reported. This creates a distanced effect, as if no one in the book is really alive. It also creates a dense block of text that – as you can see – looks forbidding to the eye (although not many writers take it to the lengths Saramago has). But Blindness is enhanced by this style. Let’s look at why.
The society is the focus While there are certain characters who are central, Saramago’s interest is an event that breaks the normal structures of civilisation. The omniscient view and the technique of running the dialogue together in long sentences builds on this. It means they are part of a bigger picture. The focus can be on anyone – the person whose actions are the most interesting or urgent to watch at a given moment.
The main characters become more vulnerable There are key characters, and this style creates a sense that they are more fragile. In any story that follows just a few viewpoints, we’re aware that most of them must continue as consciousnesses until the end of the book. In the dangerous world of this story, anyone could vanish and the world will go on being narrated. So the threat to them is more real.
Nothing is confusing Despite the unconventional presentation, you can usually tell who’s talking. Where you can’t, it’s either not important – or the point is to experience confusion.
It’s set up carefully All stories have to introduce the reader to the rules of the world, and any quirks of the style. Saramago starts as he means to go on, tuning you in so you look carefully at the prose to see if someone’s talking and who it is.
He doesn’t throw us into this many-voiced chorus straight away. The first few chapters follow a limited cast, so we get to know them. This gives us figures who are anchors in the later chapters – if they survive. He assembles a large cast quite quickly, but they are connected with these originals by the establishing scenes so it’s easy to remember who’s who.
There is also a consistency of style, although this may not consciously be noticed by the reader. One paragraph – which may go on for many pages – is a scene.
The story has momentum The style may be unorthodox, but he’s keeping the story moving. Curiosity pulls us along. The stakes keep building, the situation is running further out of control. We keep reading to find where it is going.
I haven’t read very far so I’m looking forward to even more interesting effects, but my final point is this. The run-on presentation with few traditional markers is like hearing a lot of voices and being unable to tell who is who. Isn’t that like being struck blind? It is also panicky, as though things are happening too fast to take proper note of them. It feels out of control (although the writer is tightly in command). You might even say it’s breaking convention as the society of the book is disintegrating. It makes the characters disturbingly into a herd, stripping them of individuality. This clever style choice reflects the experience of the sighted people, who have quarantined the blind people for fear they will catch it. We are at once seeing the story two ways.
This style is creating and amplifying the experience of the world. Wow.
No spoilers, please, as I want to discover the book’s surprises in the proper way… but let’s talk about styles. Have you read a novel with an apparently challenging style that enhances the material?
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You might remember the terrific question Adam Nicholls asked me about daily wordcounts and now he’s sent me this: May I pick your brain about fleshing out a character? I’m struggling with someone who’s addicted to heroin.
What a challenging subject. It’s daunting to portray a character whose experience is well beyond your own, especially to such an extreme. Here’s where one of my day jobs comes in handy. My freelance gig on a doctors’ magazine means I’ve edited a lot of pieces by people who help addicts. So this is my checklist for creating a plausible, three-dimensional character in the grip of a demonic addiction, whether illegal drugs, alcohol or a habit such as gambling.
Choose your poison
The addictive drugs have different effects. Adam has already decided his character uses heroin but you might want your character speeded up, slowed down, made more confident or just mickey finned. For one of my ghosted novels I needed a drug that would produce ghastly, debilitating hallucinations with possible flashbacks and could be easily obtained by ravers. With that wish list I decided on ketamine. (A horse anaesthetic, since you ask. Horrible if taken by humans. And make sure your internet firewall is working. You’ll find some seriously shaky stuff.)
Decide how the drug or habit alters their personality
The drug will probably amplify or change certain parts of your character’s personality. So you need to know what they were like without the drug. And remember personality is not the same as back story. Although you might use back story to demonstrate a traumatic event that led them to addiction, their reaction is individual. That same event may have had a completely different effect on another person.
Consider what the drug does for them
What do they get out of it? Why did they like it at first? Why did they try it? Have they used other drugs and what did those do for them? Are they calmer, more intensely concentrated, does it take the edge off, make them more confident, ease awkwardness with other people, numb a sense of not belonging, being fundamentally wrong or dull some other pain?
Decide how addiction controls them
You’ll undoubtedly be reading first-hand accounts of addicts and those who have been close to addicts. But you can also do a little role-play yourself to understand a person in the grip of a fierce dependence. You may not have dabbled with drugs, but I’ll bet there’s something in your life that is so important you arrange everything around it. Your children, partner, job may all govern your day-to-day decisions and choices. So you know what it’s like to place something at the centre of your life and defend it when necessary. This is like your addict’s need.
What does your addict do to fund the habit and how does that impact their life? Do they steal? If so, do they commit crimes or do they steal from the people close to them? Or are they independently wealthy? Is their supply guaranteed or do they struggle to find the drugs? What dangerous people might their habit bring them into contact with?
Significant others who aren’t addicted
How does the addiction affect the lives of those around them? What story conflicts might that create? Does your character have family and friends who aren’t addicted? How do they react? How are relationships changed by it? Who might be driven away? Who might grow closer in an attempt to help? Who knew the character before they were like this? Who has only known them since it started?
Does your addict have the capacity to stop? What might help them? What might throw them back down?
Introduce the reader to the behaviour that will be abnormal
Your addict character won’t behave like the others. If they develop the addiction through the story, you can introduce their bizarre actions gradually. But if they’re already addicted at the start, you need to handle the character-establishing scenes carefully in case the reader mistakes them for clumsy writing or refuses to believe them. This may be tricky for you to judge by yourself, so when you give the book to beta readers, ask for feedback about it.
Ultimately, when writing an addicted character, it’s not about the substance/habit or the extreme physical experiences. Concentrate on their personality, priorities, conflicts and other people. Thanks for a terrific question, Adam – I’ve enjoyed tackling this.
There are a lot more tips about writing a character who’s not like you in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated
Guys, do you have any tips to add? Have you had to write a character who’s addicted, or somebody whose world is significantly different from your own?
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This week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings and characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write. When I posted on Tuesday I forgot there would also be an Undercover Soundtrack to disturb the sequence, so here, slightly later than trailered, is Masterclass Snapshots part 4.
Regional accents to make a character sound distinct
One writer had his characters encounter people with strong local dialects. He asked how he should render their speech.
We discussed why he wanted to do this. He explained that it was to include a flavour of the setting and emphasise that the main characters were in unfamiliar territory. The odd speech was one good way to show this – with caution. Strange spellings or contractions will trip up the reader if overused. We discussed other ways of achieving this effect – perhaps by showing local customs and attitudes, lifestyles and so on. All of this will create a sense of a different culture.
This led to another good discussion – how do you make characters look distinct through their dialogue? Favourite phrases are useful, and that might be a way to show foreignness too. Habitual gestures are also good.
Humour styles are a very interesting way to differentiate people. (Curse words too, but some writers might not explore this very thoroughly.) I often see manuscripts where writers have given all their characters the same sense of humour, which makes them look like clones. In reality, you could take any group of people and they’ll all have their individual ways of expressing humour. Some enjoy wordplay. Some will try to grab attention and be the joker of the group. Some will be understated and enjoy the odd ironic quip. These are all ways to use dialogue to create a three-dimensional, distinct character.
(There’s more about this in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated, including a discussion of phonetic Glaswegian.)
Thanks for the pic Lee Carson
Tomorrow: editing is more than tweaking the language
Have you had difficulty making your characters sound distinct? How have you tackled this?
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This week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure and endings. Today it’s two questions about difficulties with characters.
The bland friend
One romance writer had a character who was the supportive friend for the protagonist. She worried that, in all the scenes of tea and sympathy, the friend was bland. I suggested giving her a rough edge that showed the limits of this tolerant soul. I drew inspiration from Dave’s mother, easily the most accommodating person I ever met. But she couldn’t abide spiders, and would not have been bothered if you squashed one while removing it from her presence. Suppose, I said to my romance writer, your nice lady is so mortally afraid of spiders that she always stamps on them?
The antagonist you’re afraid to write
Another lady had an antagonist who made her feel inhibited. She knew he should have more darkness than she had written but she feared to explore it. She also recognised this was cheating the book. What if, I said, she put that worry into another character, let them act out her discomfort? Would that free her to unlock the antagonist? She seemed to feel that would do the trick. I also encouraged her to look for the kernel of good that let him feel positive and justified about himself – and maybe even disturbed him.
Thanks for the pic, heyjoewhereareyougoingwiththatguninyourhand
Tomorrow: accents in dialogue
I’m really curious about this question of the character who upsets us so much we feel inhibited when we write them. Have you had experience of this? Let’s talk.
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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- And then there were three (NYNs)… Do you find plot more difficult than character? Plus the midpoint of Blade Runner December 20, 2014
- ‘Summoning Christmas in July’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jan Ruth December 17, 2014
- Living the stuff of novels: the ghostwriter’s lot December 14, 2014
- ‘Harmony from fragments’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Rochelle Jewel Shapiro December 10, 2014
- Editing seminar snapshots: writing for a blog vs writing for a book December 7, 2014
- Editing seminar snapshots: negative criticism and author control December 5, 2014
- ‘We become readers in our listening’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, EJ Runyon December 3, 2014
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