Orson Welles once told an interviewer that he considered the greatest screen actor of all time to be Jimmy Cagney. The reason he gave for this was that Cagney always played at the top of his range but was never fake or over-the-top.
The effect of this full-on style of acting was magnetic. When somebody is pouring their all into what they’re doing, you can’t help but watch. Most actors can do this when the script requires. Cagney could do it all the time. Love scene, death scene, action scene.
It doesn’t matter how big you go if you can make it feel real. And because the audience believes the actor cares, they care.
When it comes to writing fiction you can use a similar approach to keep the reader engaged with what’s happening in the story.
The eyes are often called, with some justification, 'the windows of the soul' as they can send many different non-verbal signals.
For reading body language this is quite useful as looking at people's eyes are a normal part of communication (whilst gazing at other parts of the body can be seen as rather rude).
When a person wears dark glasses, especially indoors, this prevents others from reading their eye signals. It is consequently rather disconcerting, which is why 'gangsters' and those seeking to appear powerful sometimes wear them.
Most authors have encountered the advice: “Avoid the dreaded mirror scene!” Why? Because using a mirror to describe your main character is a crutch upon which many authors rely to give their readers a visual snapshot of the characters in a book. But giving a snapshot not only interrupts the flow of a scene, it also reminds the reader that an author wanted them to see something. To make an authentic, deeply-connected bond between reader and character, the author must immerse the reader in the character’s voice and stay out of the character’s way.
Fiction depends on tension. Tension—a felt response to conflict—must be heightened as well as diminished in a literary work. Where this is accomplished depends on the nature of the plot and the character arc. While tension is created by practically every story element, pacing is largely a result of style and narrative technique.
If you want an audience's attention, you have to get them interested - you have to get them to care about what has happened to someone. If you don't, they will move on to the next, more exciting story.
The beginning of your story must be vivid and important enough to create empathy in readers. They want riveting stories with negative beginnings, complicated (not boring) middles, and generally positive endings.
Often times as writers, we rush through an action scene. It happens so quickly in our mind’s eye that our fingers can’t write it out fast enough. However, these five tips will help improve the action scenes in your manuscript:
I’ve said it before, and it’s likely I’ll say it several times more: your first few pages are, arguably, the most important pages of your book. And the first 250 words? The most important of those first pages.
This isn’t a secret in the publishing world, in fact, it’s why writers spend so much time and effort making that first 250 gleam. But I think, sometimes, writers don’t fully realize everything that the first 250 words of their manuscript tells readers, whether they intend them to or not.
In the last post I talked about contentious issues and how they can be used to grab a reader’s attention. But sometimes issues can sneak into a story without the writer being aware of them, and in a way that can reflect very badly on the story and on the writer.
The main character is usually well defined, as are the core set of supporting characters, but there are a whole host of other smaller parts, from the neighbour with the occasional line of dialogue to the girl at the coffee shop who never says a word, that populate a fictional world and give it a life beyond the two or three people that really matter to the story.
And it is these small, seemingly insignificant roles, that can lead readers to infer things about the writer’s view of the world that the writer never intended and doesn’t think.
Often the books that end up on best-seller lists carry a heavy emotional punch. Books that lack emotionality fall flat. When that emotionality isn’t infused in our work, our characters fall flat. The work as a whole can fall flat, and unfortunately the result will be unmemorable novel.
We all talk about creating conflict in a novel, but we must be careful not to create conflict for conflict’s sake.
Our characters should not argue over insignificant matters. They should not waste our reading time with conflict that has nothing to do with the plot. That conflict is part of your backstory and part of what happens off the page. Remember that writing fiction is not reality television – we do not want to read about every irrelevant meal or listen to coma-inducing dialogue.
So how do we get the most out of conflict in our novels?
There’s no shortage of blog posts about what makes characters likable to readers. I’ve written about the issue myself. Theories abound with different approaches we can take as writers to create likable characters.
But with every one of those posts, some will rightly bring up the fact that not all protagonists are likable. Depending on the genre or story, the protagonist might be anywhere from prickly to a full-on antihero.
Today, I worked on a difficult scene. It wasn’t a big action-packed scene; those are easy. Instead, it was a transition scene that moved the story along a week and had the potential to lose the reader with it’s lack of tension.
Overwriting or over-the-top writing, where it’s obvious the writer is trying way too hard to impress,can give an impression of lack of self-confidence and can scream “amateur” to industry professionals and discerning readers.
The novice writer prone to overwriting might take a basic idea, image, or action and keep adding more fancy descriptive words until the bloated passage has grown way out of proportion to its importance to the story as a whole.
Are you missing some of your best plot ideas? Some writers tell me they find it easy to create characters and story worlds, but struggle to create enough plot. What they often don’t realize is they already have significant and rather good plot material–if only they knew where to look.
Here are four places where your best plot ideas might be hiding.
The blank page faces you, whether it’s the page in your hand or the one on the screen, the question is always the same – how do you begin? Do you want to set the scene with a sweeping landscape, or launch into the action with a gunfight or duel? Will you ease the reader in with a prologue and back-story, or start with a mystery and rely on the reader’s curiosity to draw them on. There are so many ways to choose from, but which is right for your story?
Generally speaking showing is considered a better type of writing than telling, but there are times when neither feels quite right. Fortunately there are a couple of techniques that use neither approach.
Telling is something like “John felt sad” and has the advantage of being short and quick, but it tends to lack emotional engagement. You know what the writer means, you understand the character’s experience, but you don’t necessarily feel it too.
Showing might be something like “John let out a barely audible sigh and a single tear rolled down his cheek” which lets you see what’s happening rather than being told. This, when done right (unlike my horrible example), enables the reader to feel more present and empathetic with the character, but it can take up a lot more space.
But what if you want to create an immediate and visceral effect for the reader without taking up too much room?
When there’s a lot going on in a scene, like your hero is running pell-mell through the woods to evade an axe-wielding maniac, or you’re neck deep in a scene where a frantic flight attendant is trying to land a plane during a terrorist takeover, then pace is king. Slowing down to describe the soft melody of crickets and scent of pine needles won’t fit with scene A any more than play by play description of a passenger helping by giving CPR to a pilot fits with scene B.
This is not to say high action scenes are all tell, no show, because they aren’t! Only that word economy is important, and doing more with less is key. We maintain the intensity by choosing what is important enough to show, and what can be told.
Is there anything more fun, more bittersweet, and more challenging than book endings? Arguably, nothing matters more for ensuring reader satisfaction than the ending of a book. As such, few parts of your story are going to be more important to get right. But naturally, the room for error rises in direct proportion to the importance of any aspect of your novel. One of the easiest writing mistakes to fall into in your book endings is actually one that has as much to do with book beginnings–and, indeed, the entirety of your book.
When you plan your story’s climax, the first thing to come to mind might not be the setting. Too often, the climactic setting is an afterthought. The action, after all, is what’s most important–not where it takes place. But setting can make or break any scene in your story, and this is nowhere more true than in your story’s climax.
I have been seeing a lot of this lately in submissions. Authors are confusing the idea of conflict vs. complication. I am constantly asking myself, "so why don't they fix it?' or "so why aren't they together?" Instead, the author goes on and on, making up excuse after excuse to keep the story going but there still is no real conflict.
Although the term red herring is usually associated with murder mysteries, most stories contain an element of misdirection to keep the reader guessing at the outcome. When it’s obvious where it’s headed, even if the route contains interesting obstacles and encounters, you miss out on that feeling of discovery when you realise the answer isn’t A, as you thought, but B (which seemed impossible but now you can see of course it was B, it was always B, sneaky, sneaky B).
In order to create the delight a reader feels when their view of the world (even when it’s a made up world) is spun around 180 degrees and they see things how they truly are you have to first convince them of the way things truly aren’t.
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