Tag Archives: prose

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.

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.