When someone is reading a story they are assigning a value to what they are reading. This value can be anywhere from ‘I have absolutely no interest in this’ to ‘I have to know what happens next, sleep be damned’. Obviously you want them to be nearer one end of the scale than the other.
While it’s impossible to have a story where the reader’s engagement is turned up all the way to 11 from beginning to end, there are ways to help you get the most out of a scene, no matter what the premise might be.
Action, conversation, or even a familiar set up that’s been written about a zillion times before— they can all be vastly improved if the reader actively wants to know what’s going on. And there are ways you can help nudge them in that direction.
It’s no secret that your environment can affect your creativity. If you’re sitting at your brightly lit desk in a chilly office, listening to loud music, and wondering why your next flash of genius isn’t coming to you, try swapping that environment for a warm, softly lit room. Maybe even put on some moderate ambient noise.
Even if you love the printed word, there’s something magic about cinema. How it happens is somewhat of a mystery—even for those involved in the production process. What’s even more amazing is how a writer can create the likes of Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Holly Golightly from a few lines of dialogue and sparse stage directions. To be sure, credit must be given to the director and actors involved, but a good character and a good story begins with good writing.
Scan the Table of Contents in most writing manuals and you’ll see the familiar menu of story mechanics. All good! Setting, characters, plot points and pillars, crisis, climax and resolution—without these ingredients we probably don’t have a fully-cooked story. But one essential is almost always missing—the heart of a story.
The fact that scenes can open up a character in a unique and powerful way exposes a simple, fundamental truth: Characters reveal themselves more vividly in what they do and say than in what they think and feel.
When writing a story, using the senses to make scenes more vivid and visceral is simple and obvious advice. You want the reader to feel like they’re right there with the characters, experiencing what they’re experiencing.
Using what the characters see, hear, smell, touch and taste will further reader engagement, but these are not the only senses people have. There are in fact a host of other senses that are often overlooked or are so abstract that it isn’t clear how to convey them on the page.
A simple google search will produce a list of senses other than the big five, but it isn’t enough to be aware of them, or to be able to define them. You want to be able to capture the feeling in a way that the reader will relate to, and relate to strongly.
You hear it all the time: prologues are evil. (And writers everywhere, commence howling.) Now I’ll grant that “evil” is a slight exaggeration. We might call them “dangerous” instead, except that word is pretty ironic, since one of the chief reasons a prologue is so dangerous is because it allows authors to play it waaaaay yonder too safe.
I used to confuse conflict with action. In film, we decipher conflict from dialogue and character’s actions and reactions. In writing we have the added dimension of thought. We can introduce the reader to conflicts through our characters in an intimate way.
Sometimes things don’t work out the way we want them to. In life, we put up with this – we bear the disappointments, we try something new, we get over it.
When writing a book, it’s different – we know that we can find a way to make it work. Why? Simple reason: as the author we have complete control over the story world. We’re not lying on the operating table – we’re the surgeon with the cool brow and gleaming little scalpel.
After the inciting event has occurred, and the protagonist is faced with the story question of the act one problem, it’s time to make a choice and launch act two.
The act two choice is the transitional moment, linking the beginning and the middle. The protagonist chooses to embrace whatever problem he’s confronted with, and accepts the opportunity it offers to resolve that problem. How he decides to deal with that problem establishes how the plot is going to unfold throughout the middle of the novel.
To build a compelling character (and write them convincingly) we want to make them real as possible, and that means developing a backstory that lets us understand them on a deeper level. This brainstorming time allows us create their unique personality by seeing how the people and events of their past helped to shape them. Knowing who and what influenced a character gives us insight into what they might fear, desire, and need most of all. With these key pieces of information, we will know what motivates them, which in turn dictates their reactions, responses and behaviors in the story.
Whenever I'm stuck on a scene, I return to the basics. I look at the goals, conflict, stakes, and if that doesn't fix the problem, I look at the structure itself. Classic scene structure ends in two ways: the protagonist gets her goal, or she doesn’t get her goal. The answer is yes or no.
• A simple formula for writing: take the story from high intensity (action, argument, manifest tension, drama) to low intensity (dialogue, simmering tension, concerted character development). Nothing should be without tension, and conflict should carry throughout.
We know taking breaks optimizes work-and-create flow. But what are the best practices and under what conditions? Some people advise mindful breaks. Others suggest full-blown hour-long naps. Much depends upon your circumstances and your desired ends.
For writers, reading may seem as essential to life as breathing. But did you know reading has actually been proven to have surprising health benefits? So the next time you feel like your creativity has quit and your writing has wilted, reach for the remedy: your favorite book! Here are five remarkable ways that reading can improve your sense of well-being and keep you healthy:
Chapter One is a series of posts where I take apart the first chapter of a successful book to see what makes it work, how the author hooked the reader, which rules were followed and which were broken to good effect (previous entries can be found here: Chapter One Analyses).
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was published in 2012 and made into a hit movie last year. The author’s previous two novel were moderately successful, but sold nowhere near as many copies as this one.
It’s a contemporary mystery thriller, written in the first person by two narrators, both of whom seem fairly unreliable. Chapters are alternated in a he said/she said format. The story starts with the husband (Nick) writing on the day his wife goes missing. The wife (Amy) is represented by a diary that begins on the day she first met Nick at a party in Manhattan.
I’ll be looking at both first chapters (his and hers) to see how they differ and how they complement each other.
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