good writing

Book or movie person?

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Are you a book person or a movie person? I don’t mean exclusively, most people enjoy both but in my experience we always enjoy one a little more than the other. The balance may be close, but it’s always there. Personally, movies take the lead for me.

I get more inspiration when I can see the action taking place than I can when I’m reading about it happening. A movie enables me to get absorbed into the environment and characters more fully than a book does. When watching a character interacting with his or her environment, I can instantly see whether his reactions could be made better in some way. A book cannot do this. If you’re not clued up on psychology, it’s easy to make your characters less than believable when you have only your mind with which to ‘see’ his interactions.

Watching a movie takes no more than a couple of hours and you can watch it over as often as you want and examine every nuance of each character’s behaviour. In this way, you can watch and learn about how people react in a given circumstance much easier than by reading it. If a movie character seems believable, examining his every move, right down to subtle facial movements will help you when writing your own characters. If characters seem wrong, more careful examination will help you identify why and how they’re wrong and you can avoid making the same mistake in your own writing.

Too often, movies are met with disdain by purist book lovers but I say take the time to watch them closely and you might just learn something valuable.

Are you a book person or a movie person?

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Show and Tell is not just for school

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How many times have you been told, “show, don’t tell,” when people have read your work? Yeah, me too. It’s something most of us know about but often forget or just don’t know quite how to do it. It helps to know how to recognise each of them first.

Telling

Joe was a tall man, with greying hair and a habit of chewing his lip when nervous.

It was cold, at least minus ten and a thick layer of ice covered the lake.

Sophie walked the streets looking for David but couldn’t find him anywhere.

The spaceship came into land and everyone was glad the long journey was over.

He looked like a businessman with his leather briefcase.

Showing

Joe towered a good head and shoulders over her, forcing her to crane her neck to look at him. She longed to run her fingers through his black curls and thought the greying threads at his temples gave him a distinguished air. A slight smile fluttered at the corners of his mouth as he chewed his bottom lip like a frightened child.

His breath turned to ice, making rainbow coloured diamond dust that fluttered away in the light morning breeze. Half a dozen brave ducks padded across the frozen lake and he wondered why their feet never stuck the ice. The forecast said it would be at least minus ten by dawn and as he drew his scarf tighter around his neck, he knew it was colder still.

The rapidly darkening sky brought a mood of gloom that settled over the city and Sophie shivered. The shadows cast by the newly lit street lamps leapt menacingly, every one a serial killer waiting to pounce as she crept past. Music blared from bars, drunken crowds gawked and several wolf whistles reached her ears. Walking these same streets in the light of day brought no such terrors for Sophie and she wondered at the power light has over the emotions. The early afternoon sun had still been warm when she set out to search for David, but now, in the threatening darkness and with blisters on her feet that bit painfully at every step, she turned for home alone.

The still calm of the morning was rent as the roar of engines approached. Looking up, he saw the spaceship approach and smiled with relief. Dust flew in whirling turmoil, stinging his eyes and coating his robe as the ship began its final descent. Leaves, wrenched from the ancient oaks that lined the landing strip, flew like a cloud of butterflies and covered the ground in a lush green carpet. The journey has been arduous, the mysterious engine failure almost costing the crew their lives and their late but safe arrival was reason for celebration.

He strode along the street, the understated but elegant grey suit moving with him as if moulded around his body rather than simply being manufactured. The white shirt was plain and devoid of extraneous decoration, as was his silk tie and matching pocket-handkerchief. Quality speaks for itself and needs no assistance from fussy details, he would always say when standing for a fitting with his tailor. The water buffalo hide briefcase swung silently as he walked and he remembered his father giving him his first briefcase on his first day at the company. “Only cheap leather creaks,” the old man said.

**********

See the difference? Not only do we know more about the characters and settings, but they come alive for us. We are really there when we read the ‘show’ examples. The ‘tell’ examples give us the information but we can’t connect with it on an emotional level and that’s what you want your readers to do.

Show us the character, show us his emotions, his feelings, his physical state. Bring the environment alive. Don’t just give us a photo, take us there.

When you show rather than tell, your writing will often be longer too, which is always good for word count, but don’t let that be a reason for unnecessary waffle. If you try to show everything in such detail, it becomes annoying and people will get bored waiting for the action. There is often benefit in telling rather than showing, to get to the action for instance, when your character is going from A to B. We know he needs to get from home to the hospital, but unless something along the way is important, just tell us he goes to the hospital. Sometimes you need to cover ground quickly, ground that would harm the story if you left it out altogether and in such cases, tell us about it and move on.

You can also avoid the ‘adverb/adjective’ crime by paying more attention to showing rather than telling. Rather than telling us the old house was spooky, show us the shadows dancing, let us hear the creaky doors and floorboards, let us feel the cobwebs on our skin. How do we react to the dark, the noises? What is our imagination doing? Don’t just tell us the car was racing along the road, give us the wind in our hair, the adrenaline rush, the G-force as we are pressed into our seat. Words like, ‘paranoid,’ ‘sadly,’ ‘grand,’ force us to work harder to bring them to life. I don’t have to work so hard if you show me the shadows leaping and dancing. Let me feel the weight upon my heart and the sting of tears behind my eyes and I will understand. Give me doric columns, marble staircases, and gothic arches and I’m there in your grand hall with you.

Working on showing and telling makes you think about your writing in a new way. It’s good discipline and forces you to think much deeper about not only what you’re writing, but how you’re writing it. It can sometimes feel as if it’s taking away from the purely creative aspect and making it more ‘mathematical’ but it needn’t. Keep in mind that it is not stopping you from being creative, it is allowing you to be even more creative.

Word of the day – Artifice

Noun

A clever trick or stratagem. A cunning, crafty device or expedient. Wile. Trickery. Guile. Craftiness. Cunning. Ingenuity. Inventiveness. A skillful or artful contrivance or expedient. Subtle deception.

Synonyms

Subterfuge, deceit, deception, duplicity,

No matter what genre you write in, your plot needs some artifice to keep it real and maintain your readers’ interest. This word always makes me think of the antagonist in a story, due to its inferred connection with untruth, but there is no reason why your protagonist can’t use artifice as he makes his way through the story.

Maybe your protagonist needs to use artifice in order to prove a lie and to maintain his position of truth and honesty. A side character might use artifice in such a way as to manipulate the protagonists onto a certain path, whether for good or bad.

Artifice in all its forms, due to its position as part of normal human behaviour, is a necessary part of all fiction. To leave it out would be to take away a certain realism, a feeling of authenticity, from your story.

Check out Artifice on Thesaurus.com

Dan Brown – numbskull or pioneer?

The English language is always evolving, despite our attempts to make it stand still.

As authors, we try to stick to the accepted rules of what is ‘good’ writing and we admonish those who disobey these rules.  Us older folks use the rules of grammar and punctuation that we were taught when we where young and to us, that’s the ‘right’ way to write.  Many of the younger writers are bending those rules, either due to a lack of education or a determined effort to change things.

Oh my god, they’re trying to modernise us..!

I don’t want to be modernised.  I don’t want to be forced to use an exclamation mark and a question mark together, just because Dan Brown does it in Inferno.  I like my old fashioned rules; they’re familiar and comforting and I know what I’m doing with them.  I like knowing I’ve been observant enough to remove ninety percent of the hads, thats and gots in my WIP and I positively beam with delight at the pile of adverbs I’ve scraped into the trashcan.  It’s hard work obeying the old fashioned rules of good writing; it means you have to know about writing structure.

I secretly reckon that this rush for modernisation has little to do with a desire for creative freedom and more to do with a lack of desire for getting some real education about how to build your work.  My mother is even more old fashioned than me, because her education was gained thirty years before I gained mine.  She stills puts full stops after a prefix – Dr. Smith, Mr. Smith etc and no matter how I argue with her about it, she insists on leaving them in.

I admit that my education as to how to structure ‘good’ writing was severely lacking, so when I began writing novels, I educated myself by reading articles on the internet about how to it.  I learned how to punctuate dialogue properly, the universal hatred of adverbs, hads and thats, the unwritten rule that you never, ever, use comic sans unless you want to lose your kneecaps along with your credibility and all manner of other stuff I never learned at school because I went to a comprehensive rather than a grammar.

I don’t mind moving with the times but there is no way on this Earth I’ll be using an exclamation mark and a question mark together.  I couldn’t give a rat’s arse what Dan Brown does.