Hack Your Brain, Bypass Writing Blocks

September 30, 2010

SMOKE is a game to engage your creative mind about your character by playing with metaphors. This is great for steering around creative blocks by skipping logical thought entirely. Some of your answers will be silly, but that’s okay, because some won’t. And some might give you the insight you were looking for.

Presented by Peter Elbow in Writing With Power, possibly adapted from John Gardner in On Becoming a Novelist. (Although I learned it from Bruce Holland Rogers.)

1) If your character were a color, what color would he/she be? (WAS a color, not the character’s favorite color)

2) If your character were an animal, what animal would he/she be?

3) If your character were a piece of technology, what piece of technology would he/she be?

4) If your character were a mode of transportation, what mode of transportation would he/she be?

5) If your character were a food, what food would he/she be?

6) If your character were physically constructed out of a particular material or substance, what substance would he/she be made of?

7) If your character were a type of weather, what type of weather would he/she be?

(You can make up more questions like these on your own. There’s no limit.)

Advertisements

Suspense is a Bridge

December 15, 2009

Here is a boring piece of fiction.

In a minute, I’m going to ask you to make it more suspenseful… and you’re going to do it wrong.

Jane Hemingway marched with purpose down Wilshire, past a flower shop, on the way to the post office. After a week-long tech conference in Hawaii, she was almost back in the swing of her life. Just a few errands to run — pick up a week’s worth of mail, for instance — and her normal rhythm would be restored.

Rhythm was what she liked. Steady, repetitive, secure, safe, like a metronome beating out her days. Writing code took all of her mental energy. Irregularities of schedule and unforeseen events distracted her, stressed her out, burning ergs of brain-fuel better used on her programming. She worked hard to eliminate those irregularities. She had a very low tolerance for stress.

Years of the steady removal of distraction had made her who she was. She kept her dark hair cut short, so it required no care. She wore no makeup. Her wardrobe consisted of six flower-print dresses of various colors, chosen so she could dress herself each morning without thinking. She owned a single pair of shoes.

She stopped a few steps past the flower shop. Her mother loved tulips. It would be a nice way to say hello, and after all, she never called her mother as often as she should. Jane backtracked and entered the shop, ringing the bell on the door.

You think you’re a writer? Okay, go ahead — make those four paragraphs more suspenseful. Increase the tension!

How would you do it? More active verbs? Strike some adjectives and prepositional phrases? Or would you (this is my favorite) cut the whole walking-down-the-street scene? Do we need this stinking thing?

Let’s say we do. For our story, the reader needs to know this character and this exposition (she’s an eccentric programmer, close to her mom, physical appearance, etc), because it will all be important later.

Enough, already. Here’s where you went wrong.

You fiddled with verbs and adjectives, or tightened sentences, or tried it in present tense, or maybe first person.

You got distracted by language, and forgot about storytelling.

There are lots of great storytellers who aren’t very good with language. Vince Flynn and Dan Brown come to mind.

(There are great storytellers who are good with language, of course… and plenty of poets who suck at storytelling. And, rarely, successful writers who can do neither.)

So let’s use our skill as storytellers, rather than “writers,” to fix these tedious but necessary paragraphs.

How?

By not changing the paragraphs at all.

Here, check this out.

From his vantage point on the roof, Sven had a clear view of Wilshire Boulevard. Through the cross-hairs of his high-resolution sniper scope, he spotted his target.

Short dark hair, flower print dress. That was her, all right. She was still walking toward the post office, and there was no sign of the package. Good. He hadn’t been fast enough to stop that Chinese intelligence agent from dropping the package in the mail to a random conference attendee, but at least he’d tracked that attendee down. And he was pretty sure she knew nothing about it.

Too bad for her. Sven disengaged the safety — that familiar “click” always started his palms sweating with excitement.

#

Jane Hemingway marched with purpose down Wilshire, past a flower shop, on the way to the post office. After a week-long tech conference in Hawaii, she was almost back in the swing of her life. Just a few errands to run — pick up a week’s worth of mail, for instance — and her normal rhythm would be restored.

Rhythm was what she liked. Steady, repetitive, secure, safe, like a metronome beating out her days. Writing code took all of her mental energy. Irregularities of schedule and unforeseen events distracted her, stressed her out, burning ergs of brain-fuel better used on her programming. She worked hard to eliminate those irregularities. She had a very low tolerance for stress.

Years of the steady removal of distraction had made her who she was. She kept her dark hair cut short, so it required no care. She wore no makeup. Her wardrobe consisted of six flower-print dresses of various colors, chosen so she could dress herself each morning without thinking. She owned a single pair of shoes.

She stopped a few steps past the flower shop. Her mother loved tulips. It would be a nice way to say hello, and after all, she never called her mother as often as she should. Jane backtracked and entered the shop, ringing the bell on the door.

#

Sven’s eyes narrowed coldly. He had hesitated, and now she was out of sight. She couldn’t be allowed to reach that package alive.

Sure, Steve, you’re thinking. When in doubt, throw in an assassin. Lame.

I admit my example is cheesy. But my point is this:

I don’t need to change those four paragraphs. Now, the reader is no longer bored by the Jane exposition, because the reader is busy realizing that Jane is Sven’s target and sweating about his aim, not to mention wondering what the hell the package is. I have given the reader more to think about, so he or she is at a higher cognitive level while reading the exposition.

I have made the Jane exposition interesting, not by changing it, but by changing the reader’s mental state. As a writer, I am a conductor, and the reader’s mind and emotions are my orchestra. Get it?

Tension is not achieved by style. It is achieved by strategy. The aim of that strategy is to give the reader more to think about, more to wonder about, and more to suspect.

You can do this by asking questions (“What’s in the package?”) and setting the stakes high at the beginning. Then, the reader will gladly burn through any exposition you need to get across to make your story work.


Suspense is a bridge you can build. It can carry your readers over writing like the italicized paragraphs above.

The bridge metaphor helps me remember how to write — much better than the word “tension,” which merely describes the emotion that the reader feels when the writing works well.

“Tension” only makes me think of a piece of rope.

You, the writer, ask questions continuously, on page 1, and again on page 10, and again on page 110. And you answer them too — perhaps on page 8, and page 18, and page 88, so that you have a telescoping pattern of small-scale (zigzagging) and large-scale (thematic) suspense.

In other words, if you want to increase the tension in Chapter Five, try rewriting Chapter Three. If Act II is dragging, rethink Act I.


Can you pass this Dialogue Grammar Quiz?

September 14, 2009

[September 17, 2009]

You don’t need to clear off your desk, and you don’t need a #2 pencil. There are eight grammatical blunders in this clip of dialogue. Can you find all of them?

Fred rubbed his temples and tried to think. “There’s got to be a way out of this,” he thought.

“Give it up, Fred”, said Jerome. “The DA’s got tons of evidence.” Fred pounded the table. “It’s a set up. I’m being framed!”

‘Sure, sure.’ Jerome shook his head. “If I had a nickel for every time I heard that. But the witness pointed to you, you weasel. She pointed to you and said “That’s the man, Your Honor.” The whole courtroom heard. Heck, the whole county heard!!”

“What kind of defense lawyer are you?,” Fred cried, “You’re supposed to be on my side!”

This is an excerpt from the handout I’m designing for my upcoming talk on dialogue at the Write on the Sound conference October 3. I’ll post the answers here once I give my talk.

If you’ve spotted some errors, leave a comment.

#

[October 4, 2009]

I gave the talk yesterday afternoon, and as promised, here are the answers:

.

.

.

Wait for it…

.

.

.

Wait for it…

.

.

.

Fred rubbed his temples and tried to think. There’s got to be a way out of this,[1] he thought.

“Give it up, Fred,”[2] said Jerome. “The DA’s got tons of evidence.”

[3]Fred pounded the table. “It’s a set up. I’m being framed!”

“Sure, sure.”[4] Jerome shook his head. “If I had a nickel for every time I heard that. But the witness pointed to you, you weasel. She pointed to you and said ‘That’s the man, Your Honor.'[5] The whole courtroom heard. Heck, the whole county heard!”[6]

“What kind of defense lawyer are you?”[7] Fred cried.[8] “You’re supposed to be on my side!”

1. Don’t put thoughts in quotes.
2. Dialogue punctuation goes inside quotes.
3. New speaker, new paragraph.
4. Dialogue gets double-quotes, not single.
5. Repeated dialogue from a third person gets single quotes, not double.
6. Use exclamation points (and question marks) once only. (Right?!?!)
7. Don’t follow terminal punctuation (like a question mark) with a comma.
8. Tags are offset by commas when they appear in the middle of a sentence. If the following dialogue is a complete sentence (“You’re supposed to be on my side!”), end the tag with a period.