Category Archives: Story Science

The Outrageous Justification Writing Exercise

In the promised follow-up to our last article, Turn that Scene on its Head, today we will be discussing an exercise to assist in pepping up your scenes by taking an ordinary situation and making it extraordinary.

Stock photo of two businessmen boxing, a comical metaphor for an outrageous writing exercise.
Why: The golden rule of entertainment in any form is DON’T BE BORING.  Unfortunately, many writers fall into the trap of writing “safely” where their characters act and react as would be expected of a normal person under similar circumstances, resulting in the scene being both predictable and dull.  Audiences want to be surprised and entertained, not bored to death.

Purpose: To turn a predictable scene into an interesting one by altering a character’s reaction to changing circumstances.

Challenge: Take an existing scene (or write a new one) in which a character finds himself or herself in a situation that has just changed.  Consider what the normal reaction might be for a character in those circumstances and then flip things around and have him/her react in a way that is diametrically opposite.  The reaction should be outrageous and unexpected.  Next, play out the consequences of this reaction.  You will then need to write a justification for this behavior (which may or may not appear in the same scene).

RULES:

  • For purposes of this exercise, your character’s reaction should be diametrically and outrageously opposite of what is previously written or normally expected. The more outrageous, the better.
  • The exercise works best when the situation is very normal or mundane. This lends more impact to the outrageous behavior which follows. (Need a little inspiration? Notalwaysright.com is a gold mine.)

EXAMPLES:

  • An office worker is called into his boss’s office and sacked.  The former employee doesn’t cry or beg to keep his job, he rejoices.
  • A young woman has just been asked out on a date by the man of her dreams.  Her reaction?  She starts screaming bloody murder.
  • A young man discovers he’s just won the lottery jackpot and this makes him very, very angry.
  • A mother’s oldest child has just moved out to go to college.  Instead of crying her eyes out she breaks out the wine coolers and redecorates the child’s room.
  • A married man comes home to find his wife waiting for him.  She promptly demands a divorce.  The man can barely contain his joy.

ALTERNATIVE FORMS:

Challenge yourself by making the exercise more difficult:

  • Attempt to justify the character’s unexpected reaction within the scene.
  • Add a double twist by having the character enter the situation expecting one thing but instead receives the opposite.  His unexpected reaction is harder to justify but also very interesting.
  • For an even greater challenge, choose an incident which could go either way, such as a woman just discovering that she has superpowers.  Both positive and negative reactions are expected.  How will you surprise us?

Turn that Scene on its Head (How to Fulfill Expectations by Defying Them)

stack of books story sci stock photo for exerciseDo you have a scene that’s dull, listless, unexciting, or otherwise lacking? Maybe everything is in place but for some reason the scene just isn’t that interesting. Have you ever considered that your scene might be too…predictable?

Believe it or not, this is a problem which afflicts the majority of not-yet-published creative works—the inability to capture the audience’s interest by fulfilling their expectations but doing so in a way they do not expect. Major and minor storytelling elements alike hinge on this very idea, such as plot points, gags, or character reactions, and work by bringing the audience into the story and creating conflict which, as we know, means story.

Although one could write an entire book on this premise, today we will focus on only one specific part of it: defying expectation through character reaction.

If a character reacts to an incident exactly how we expect him/her to there is no surprise and the scene falls flat with predictability, along with stakes, conflict, and the audience’s interest. Now imagine if that same character reacted in the precise opposite way we were expecting. Now that’s interesting! Why? Because now we want to know why the character is reacting differently than our expectations.

Let’s take a white collar worker named Dwight. He is called into the boss’s office. The boss sacks Dwight. Instead of breaking into tears and begging to keep his job, Dwight jumps for joy and celebrates exuberantly, culminating in an awkward bear hug with his stunned ex-boss.

Even in a situation like this the audience’s mind immediately begins to rationalize the seemingly absurd behavior. Often, such a reaction won’t seem absurd at all, but completely reasonable provided the reaction is justified by proper motivation. The scene will then play out the resulting consequences of the character’s surprising reaction and you will be expected to justify it, which may occur within the scene or sometime after.

In short:

incident > reaction > consequences > justification

Next time you are watching a movie or reading a book, pay attention to the characters’ reactions to changing circumstances. You will be surprised at the number of times they react in the opposite way a normal person would in the same situation. Also be aware that sometimes characters need to react exactly as they are expected to in order for a story to develop. Action movies are very good at combining both into a reaction that at first seems expected only to follow it with a reversal which reveals the unexpected.

(Consequently, the “opposite-than-expected reaction” has been a common strategy in TV writing for decades. Any episode of the hit series Lost hinges its entire plot on such reactions. For a more on-the-nose example, take a look at any scene in the original 90210 TV series from 1990s.)

Try It Yourself: Turn Your Scene Upside Down

  • Take any scene in which one of your characters reacts to a change of circumstance.
  • Change the character’s reaction to be the exact opposite of what it was previously, defying normal expectations.
  • Explore the consequences of that reaction.
  • Justify the reaction through character motivation.
  • Ask yourself, “Where can I take my story from here with this new and interesting turn of events?”

And voila! Magic happens.

Try it for yourself and share your results. We’d love to hear about it!

Improve Your Writing with Verbs

If global successes like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter have taught us anything, it’s that the clarity of your writing is vital to successful storytelling. Clarity is achieved through solid forward action, vivid imagery free from over-indulgent qualifiers, and in particular the effective management and use of verbs, especially action verbs.

Verbs propel the action of your text forward by communicating how something is observed or achieved. They are simpler, clearer and pack more punch per word than adjectives or adverbs, which are often ambiguous and flimsy by comparison. Understanding how to use verbs can give life to your writing by transforming your dull prose into a crackling thunderbolt.

Here are three ways you can improve your writing with verbs:

(1) Replace “to be” (être) verbs with action verbs.

“To be” verbs are passive and static, serving only to transmit information as statements of fact. On the other hand, action verbs describe things that happen in a way that is both active and dynamic, engaging your audience by pulling them directly into immediacy with the text. Action verbs have the added bonus of making your writing more crisp and efficient by eliciting a very specific impression in the mind of your audience without filling your text with qualifying descriptors.

(2) Replace descriptive padding with effective verbs.

Reduce “descriptive padding” by eliminating purple prose in favor of effective verbs which communicate concrete imagery. Adjectives and adverbs are often ambiguous and overused, especially among young writers. When used as “padding” (to make things seem more interesting) these descriptives and qualifiers actually bog down the pacing of your text while diminishing its clarity, even when you think you are increasing it. Action verbs can accomplish the same task with fewer words and in simpler form. Don’t bloat your pages with hot air; fill them with qualitative prose instead.

(3) Understand how to upgrade your verbs.

Upgrading a verb takes an action and makes it more specific by increasing the amount of emotion and intent behind the action. Every time you upgrade a verb you are upgrading the intensity it communicates. Observe how a simple sentence becomes more vivid as we upgrade the verb “TAKES” to further extremes:

He TAKES the book from her hands.
He PLUCKS the book from her hands.
He SNATCHES the book from her hands.
He WRENCHES the book from her hands.
He RIPS the book from her hands.

Notice how each verb upgrade creates a newer, more intense version of the same action without lengthening the sentence or diminishing its pace.

Understanding how to use verbs—especially action verbs—to improve your writing is important to all specializations of the craft. Nouns, adjectives and adverbs are useful parts of speech but they cannot convey the same level of emotion or action as the appropriate action verb can.

Until next time, this is STORY SCIENCE signing off. We would love to hear about your favorite sentences or phrases made incredible through the use of action verbs. Be sure to post on our facebook page or contact us on twitter and share your favs!

Remember: The power of prose rests with verbs.

The “What Happens Next?” Exercise

Why: Have you ever had a story stuck in your head but weren’t able to get it down on paper? Or it just doesn’t translate onto the page the way you envision it? Or maybe you’re like me and you just need to get the @#&% thing on paper to get it out of your head so you can come back to it later.

All of these reasons are why the “What Happens Next?” exercise came into being. This exercise will help you sort out your story by allowing you to effectively write your entire piece at the structural without getting lost in the details.

Purpose: To put onto the page everything that happens in your story in sequential order. The exercise focuses on plot development step by step, highlighting parts of your story that do not work correctly, are repetitive or missing. It also forces you to think about your story analytically so that when you sit down to actually write the text of your creative work you will have a clear direction in which to write.

Challenge: Write down each thing that happens in your story in outline form in the order in which they occur using a new line and only one sentence for each event. Describe the event as minimally but as specifically as possible. Do this from beginning to end. Push yourself, don’t get lazy, and don’t forget to finish. It can be very tempting to abandon the exercise before completing it because it can be very taxing on the brain and surprisingly difficult. In only a few hours (or days, depending on the length of your work) you can lay out your entire story from beginning to end.

RULES:

  • Start from the beginning and finish with the end.
  • Do no skip anything. If you know a part is missing, indicate so, including a summary of what should or might be there and what it needs to lead to (such as, “our main character somehow survives and manages to make it back with proof that he has recovered the artifact”). It’s okay to be generic or vague here, but not okay to summarize huge chunks unless you absolutely don’t have anything for that point.
  • Do not include details other than those necessary to explain each element, event or incident.
  • Do not include character background or any other such depth that is not directly relevant to the plot.
  • Keep your notes, discoveries and comments elsewhere.
  • If you plan to rearrange things out of chronological order, you may choose to put them in chronological order first to make sure your story doesn’t have any holes and reorder them as desired later.

EXAMPLE:

  1. Bjorn wakes up tied to a chair.
  2. Bjorn breaks free and searches the house for something to eat.
  3. Bjorn is confronted by a stranger, who wants to know the color of his favorite socks.
  4. After a brief exchange, Bjorn leaves the house to find a basket of goodies abandoned by a tree.
  5. Bjorn cries at the memory of his mother and how she used to bake goodies for him, flashes back to an incident where he burned himself while she was baking cookies and how she lovingly cared for him.

ALTERNATIVE FORMS:

  • After completing the exercise, expand what you’ve written into an annotated step outline.
  • Watch a movie or read a short book with a partner, then wait a day or so and sit down with someone else, having them ask you, “What happened next?” or “And then what happened?” (etc.), not letting you skip anything. It will force you to remember events in the order in which they occurred in a sort of oral step outline. It’s much harder than it sounds because your brain tends to only remember the highlights of a story, not all the steps in between.
  • As above, have a partner ask you what happens next for your own story, whether or not they know anything your story.

The “Everything You Know About This” exercise.

In this version of the exercise you will be able to get a story out of your head before it is fully formed at a time when you aren’t able to actually write out the whole piece. This will preserve your creative work for later use when you have time to come back to it and do it justice.

  • Write down absolutely everything you know about your story in bullet form, including character elements, background and other details or thoughts which pertain to the plot.
  • They do not have to be in order. You can re-order them later.
  • I highly suggest writing by hand because it gives your brain more time to think and connect dots and make discoveries you might not otherwise make while typing.
  • When finished, type up your bullet list and put everything in order. You will be surprised at how much you know about your story.

Are You a Creative Writer or an Analytical Writer?

What is the difference between a Creative Writer and an Analytical Writer? What are they? Is one better than the other? Can I be both?

The short answer is this: There are two primary ways writers approach writing based on the way they think, creatively or analytically, and one is not any better than the other. Many writing instructors lump analytical and creative writing into one block (among fiction writers, this may be delineated as “pre-writing,” “writing” and “re-writing”) when in fact these are two different skills which use two very different parts of the brain.

Here is a basic summary:

The Analytical Writer

  • intellectual/technical approach
  • better at: problem-solving, analysis and structure
  • best at: pre-writing and rewriting

The Creative Writer

  • emotional/intuitive approach
  • better at: exploration of the internal life of characters, feelings and reactions
  • best at: emotional content and putting text on the page

In a perfect world, every writer would be both creative and analytical, but we do not live in an ideal world and we are rarely as analytical or creative as we would like to be. More often than not, we are more one than the other, although seldom to the exclusion of the other.

Which Type of Writer Am I?

The Creative Writer

You May Be a Creative Writer If…

You work by diving right into your material and writing.

  • You write best in the heat of the moment.
  • You start at a given point and expand outward, working from the inside out.
  • You find that the more you write, the more the story writes itself.
  • You explore story and characters by pushing, prodding, and exploring “what-if” scenarios.
  • Organization and structure are not primary concerns for you as you expand your work like a painter spreads acrylics on canvas.

You write more instinctively than systematically.

  • You see the forest for the trees but not necessarily the forest as a whole.
  • Your scenes are well fleshed-out and filled with content, even if your scenes lack pertinent plot-forwarding direction and may tend to run long.
  • You access your creative powers by tapping into the intuitive and emotional parts of your inner being.

You write emotionally.

  • You translate your characters to the page by thrusting yourself into the heart of their inner emotional lives.
  • Your focus is more on how every piece of your story feels than functions.
  • You are highly in tune with your characters, their thoughts, emotions and reactions.

If this sounds like you, then you may be a Creative Writer.

What To Work On:

STRUCTURE

Once you have your initial vomit draft splattered on the page, go back and deliberately structure your story and plot BEFORE revising or revisiting your draft. Then stick to it and mercilessly cut your “darlings” (as Faulkner called them).

THROUGH-LINES

Although you may love your characters and love your scenes, every scene must further the plot or deepen character (preferably both). Scenes that serve neither purpose or do not directly apply to the spine of your story should be cut, no matter how much you love them. You may have a harder time than the Analytical Writer in letting these gorgeous little frivolities go.

VERISIMILITUDE

Ensure that your setups are paid off, that small details included in your story are somehow pertinent to the story, and that your story maintains an even tone, direction and central spine throughout its entirety.

REWRITING

This is a difficult—if not seemingly insurmountable—task for you. Rewriting is an analytical process that requires you to keep your eyes on the forest and your head out of the trees. Approach rewriting as a completely separate process from your initial writing process. In fact, try letting your vomit draft sit for awhile before taking on your first rewrite. When you are ready, approach your rewrite one step at a time to make it manageable. Start by reading through your draft and making a checklist of any and all issues, big or small, that you think need fixed or any changes you wish to make—but don’t actually touch your draft yet. Next, address each point on the list one at a time, in any order. Do not combine items on the list unless they are directly related (you don’t want to overwhelm yourself with taking on the whole forest at once, just one tree a time will suffice). You may even find it useful for you to intercut your writing and rewriting sessions into alternating blocks or by starting every new writing session by rewriting your previous session’s work before moving on. Regardless, you need to find a process that works for you—even if it is a long, complicated and laboriously painful one.

Bottom Line

Can the Creative Writer be successful? Absolutely. Louis Sachar’s Holes is a Creative Writer who managed to create a flawless novel.

The Analytical Writer

You May Be an Analytical Writer If…

You don’t start writing until you have a plan or outline of some kind.

  • You work best before and after the moment, in planning, pre-writing and re-writing.
  • You structure and sketch a rough outline of everything before actually filling out the spaces in between.
  • You pre-write copiously by idea-generating, researching, note-taking, scribbling, structuring and summarizing before getting down to actual text.
  • You seldom write off-plan unless a new discovery is made, at which point you adjust your schematics to fit the new data or you plot out the newly-adjusted story before actually writing it.

You write more systematically than instinctively.

  • You see the trees for the forest, working outside in by establishing a framework before you start writing.
  • You design and execute your story like an architect who sketches first, draws second, then inks and colors his/her work, each layer with more detail than the last.
  • You prefer to let your work sit for long periods before revising so that you can go back to it with a fresh, critical eye.

You write intellectually.

  • You utilize the analytical parts of your brain to work intellectually and logically to justify action and reaction.
  • The actual playing out of your scenes is of little concern in the early stages so long as the goal and direction are maintained at the structural level. The actual content of your scenes will be written out last.
  • Unlike the Creative Writer, your scenes are less emotionally intense but contain more analytical content. While intellectually stimulating, your scenes may lack emotional heat or easily become didactic.
  • Your focus is more on how every piece of your story functions than feels.
  • You are highly in tune with the progression of your story, its constituent elements and the procedures required to reveal information and advance the plot.

If this sounds like you, then you may be an Analytical Writer.

What To Work On:

WRITING

Putting down the first vomit draft of your work can be one of the hardest things for an Analytical Writer to do. The temptation is to keep planning and summarizing instead of actually producing pages. Also it may be hard to keep interested while filling in all the little segments that need fleshing out. Address this issue by pre-writing to your heart’s content—outlines, character bios, backstories, histories of places and things, whatever you want—but do not begin writing your initial draft until your outline is done. When you do start writing, try to do so in as long, contiguous segments as possible to prevent your work from coming across as disconnected or episodic. Just as like the outline, don’t start rewriting until you’ve completed your initial vomit draft. It’s too easy for you to get lost in revisions without ever finishing a single draft.

EMOTIONAL CONTENT

This is a major issue and involves several parts, the most important of which is centered on exposing the emotional content of your story and getting close to the heart of the matter with passion, truth and depth. While this may be natural to the Creative Writer it can be downright baffling to the Analytical Writer. Try free-writing to open your mind, letting the creative juices flow with emotional material. Connecting with the emotional heart of your material can take as long as two or three hours of work if you aren’t writing on a daily basis, considerable less if you are. Look beyond your objective outer core, searching deep within your feelings to tap into the dormant emotional power lying hidden there.

CHARACTER

Stemming from the previous issue, your characters may be colorful and interesting with myriad pasts and every manner of depth, but may still lack the emotional elements which humanize them, allowing us to feel for and with them. It is vital that you find a way to develop the inner monologue, tactics, feelings and emotional responses of your characters. Try writing long, detailed bios which catalogue and develop their inner emotional lives, even if you have to start out by exploring them intellectually. Eventually your characters will start talking to you and you will be able to effectively translate your characters onto the page.

Bottom Line

Can the Analytical Writer succeed? Yes. You’ve probably heard of an author by the name of Michael Crichton. He employs meticulous planning and research before sitting down to write.

In Conclusion…

Your degree of analytical or creative ability is no measure of skill or success. Whether you triumph as a Creative Writer or an Analytical Writer fully depends on you and your ability to overcome obstacles in order to achieve your goals—just like the characters in your story.

The 10 Commandments of Writing Good Dialogue

Writing good dialogue is an art unto itself and is arguably more difficult than writing description or narrative action.  For some writers dialogue flows naturally from their fingertips.  But for the rest of us who are not so wonderfully gifted dialogue comes at a price, and only after a great deal of conscious effort and banging our heads against the wall.  To make things a little easier, we have assembled an annotated list of the most important things to remember when writing dialogue in your next screenplay, stageplay or novel.

  1. Thou shalt write dialogue with PURPOSE.  Good dialogue either reveals character or advances the plot in every line.  Great dialogue does both.  Dialogue which serves neither purpose has no place in your story at all and should be cut.  Want to see a film with great dialogue?  Watch Casablanca.

  2. Thou shalt write dialogue based on character TACTICS.  Why does a character bother to say anything at all?  Because (s)he wants something.  But a character can’t just want something without employing a specific tactic to pursue that desire.  Therefore dialogue is determined by a character employing a tactic to achieve a specific goal.  A tactic is motivated by what the character wants right at that moment and how he is willing to achieve it.  Either the tactic succeeds and a new desire is born or, as is more often the case, the tactic fails and the character must use a new tactic or give up.  Read some tactical dialogue in just about any stageplay script or the popular novel The Hunger Games.

  3. Thou shalt write dialogue NATURALLY, NOT ACTUALLY.  That is, write dialogue so that it sounds natural but is not in fact actual conversation.  Dialogue is no more real speech than a movie is real life.  Unlike actual conversation, dialogue is carefully and consciously sculpted to achieve a deliberate purpose.  When writing dialogue, skip or briefly summarize the less useful parts of conversation such as greetings and meaningless exchanges so as to get to the real meat of the conflict as soon as possible.  Avoid hedges and fences which slow the pace of dialogue (such as “Well,” or “Look,” and “You know,” or “, you know” as well as frivolous insertion of character names and other weakening qualifiers.  Even conversational writers like David Mamet in Oleanna still only approximate actual conversation.

  4. Thou shalt write dialogue using both TEXT and SUBTEXT.  Dialogue has two parts: the readily visible text on the page (that which is being said) and the hidden subtext(that which is not being said).  Why do you need both?  Because subtext without text is not dialogue while text without subtext is dull (Krull is a great example).  The audience may even feel like something is missing because people seldom say what they mean in real conversation, instead skirting around the issue at heart by means of various tactics.  Use subtext to deepen your story, to convey exposition and to avoid on-the-nose dialogue (saying exactly what is meant).  A good rule of thumb is to never say what you can otherwise imply.

  5. Thou shalt write dialogue that is UNIQUE AND APPROPRIATE TO CHARACTER.  Every character should be recognizable by their dialogue without having to read the character names on every line (your brain tends to skip over character names anyway).  The emotions and tactics of the character should be reflected in his or her dialogue as well.  And while a character’s dialogue must be distinct, don’t forget that it must sound natural, so don’t give your character lines that no one would ever say, especially your character.  No one would ever mistake dialogue spoken by the character Sawyer in the TV show Lost for any other character on the show.  Try reading your dialogue out loud to spot awkward lines.  Better yet, get together with a few friends (or actors, or both) to read and talk through trouble spots.

  6. Thou shalt write dialogue using COMPRESSION.  Compression means that you pack the most amount of punch into the least amount possible by means of subtext and implication.  To compress your dialogue, hunt down redundant beats and lobotomize them.  Redundant beats are repetitious and will come across to the audience as boring and annoying.  Combine or cut any beat that repeats what another already conveys.  Remember: It is better to write simply than to simply write.  Excellent examples of highly compressed dialogue can be seen on the TV show Lost.

  7. Thou shalt NOT write dialogue as a REPLACEMENT.  Dialogue is not a replacement for action, visuals, or character.  At its most basic level, dialogue is essentially telling.  Don’t tell the audience what you can show them.  The infamous sword-and-sandal epic Cleopatra substitutes a final sea battle with dialogue—but only because they ran out of money to film it.

  8. Thou shalt write AS LITTLE DIALOGUE AS POSSIBLE.  Dialogue is the primary means of conveying story in a stageplay, while film uses visual storytelling and novels use descriptive narrative.  But just because all three forms use dialogue doesn’t mean you should write dialogue until you can write no more.  Many inexperienced storytellers tend to use dialogue to over-explain elements of character and plot that should have been illustrated some other way.  Bloated dialogue also has a tendency to slow pacing and bore the reader unnecessarily.  As in writing description and revealing plot, only explain the minimum amount required to understand the story in order to draw in your audience.  Never explain everything.  Don’t spell out the obvious things although you may have to shed light on the things that aren’t.  The more you explain to the audience, the more passive and less emotionally connected they become to the story.  The more mental legwork the audience must do to connect implied dots the more emotional attached to your story and characters the audience becomes.  Also avoid bogging down the story with frequent long speeches, monologues or soapboxing (preachiness or unnecessary exposition).

  9. Thou shalt write dialogue FREE OF CLICHÉS.  Avoid all clichés like the plague (a cliché in itself).  Clichés stick out like a sore thumb (another cliché) and each instance pulls the audience out of immersion of your story’s world.  And that’s bad for business.  Want to hear clichéd dialogue?  Watch any straight-to-DVD film sequel.  For the opposite, watch Silence of the Lambs and pay careful attention to the uniqueness and density of the lines.
  10. Thou shalt write dialogue that is APPROPRIATE TO GENRE AND CONTEXT.  Comedy dialogue should be funny but shouldn’t go out of its way to tell a joke—the dialogue still must move the story forward.  Action and Thriller dialogue should be terse, compact and minimal.  Emotional dialogue should be heartfelt and not trite.  Never write dialogue which does not fit the tone of the story, the scene or the character.  TalladegaNights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby illustrates how story-driven jokes can be both funny and heartfelt.

Writing Exercise: The Être Challenge

Why: It is common among writers (especially young writers) to overuse “to be” (être*) verbs. By eliminating forms of être verbs you strengthen the impact of your writing by making it more efficient and more powerful.

Purpose: Avoid overuse of “to be” verbs.

Challenge: Write one page about a character wherein you describe him/her/it. However, you may only use the infinitive être verb (“to be”) in any form once per paragraph. This includes any and all conjugations of the verb as well as helping verbs.

Alternative Forms:

  1. DIALOGUE. Write a one-page monologue in the voice of a character observing the same rules.
  2. ACTION: Write a one-page action scene or sequence with no dialogue observing the same rules.
  3. POETRY: Write a half-page in any meter desired observing the same rules except instead of once per paragraph, allow the être verb only once per stanza or once every 10 lines.

*Être is the infinitive form of the verb “to be” in French.