Saturday, 23 October 2010

Speaking of drama, what price "subtext"?

OK, sorry but it's not conflict today either.  Went to amateur show last night and had a realisation about the difference between amateurs and pros.  In a word, subtext.  For those not in the drama know, this means what's going on underneath the words rather than the meaning of the words - ie thoughts.

What does this have to do with writing?  It's the luxury we have in fiction.  We get to write down the thoughts.  Your playwright doesn't have this, which is why you need "interpretation" by actors and director.  They create the "show, don't tell" part.  In fiction, we have to dramatise the action with the thoughts going alongside.

That's the real meaning of "show, don't tell".  Which is why we are always talking about getting inside the character's head and telling the story from their viewpoint.  This is also where using all the senses comes in.  The reader becomes involved with what your viewpoint character is seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting (external atmosphere).  Not forgetting the sixth sense which gives you interior atmosphere or vibes.

And then we add the subtext:  what effect does the above have on the character which dictates the kind of thoughts going through the mind?  Finally, what effect do the thoughts have on the character's body or vice versa?

Example:  Sudden whoosh of cold air = shiver = riffle of fear = who's out there? = tightening of stomach = mustn't be seen = flick off the light = shortness of breath = footsteps = they're coming this way! = escalation of fear = cold of concrete as flatten against wall = holding breath = flash of bright light in face = shock = paralysis...

See what I mean?  Let it roll, one thing leading to the next.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Is that Sod on the horizon again?

Quick post.  Life will insist on taking over.  Already late blogging and then put the back out again on the weekend.  Got the thing fixed up first thing yesterday and then the car packed up.  Waited two and half hours for the RAC, had to have a new battery and then raced to eat lunch and get to appointment for one o'clock.

Why go on about this on a writing tips blog?  Because it's part and parcel of the writing life.  The most difficult part, I think, is keeping a schedule going.  If you go out to work, your boss expects you to be there for the duration - barring emergencies.  If you work at home, you're available.

Sod - you know that guy whose law we are always running into? - says if you only have three writing days, at least one of them is going to be wrenched out of your hands by "life".  And once he gets his teeth into you, Sod can be a right b-----d, because he figures if he can grab one day, he can grab the lot.  Often enough he's right.

What do you do?  Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again, as the song says.  The only true test of a writer is your ability to do just that.  Persistence is the name of the game, and all of the above is why you need persistence.

Next time, conflict and drama as promised - barring another visit from you know who.

Monday, 11 October 2010

What does drama have to do with writing?

Actors turned writers have this advantage - a sense of the dramatic.  I spent years treading the boards when writing was still a hobby.  By the time I made the switch, I had also swapped acting for teaching drama and directing, which made me realise just how much correlation there is between the two arts.

No surprise, really, when you think about it.  Whether performed or written, we are portraying or commenting on the human condition.  Which means conflict, motivation, characterisation, atmosphere, mood line, emotional life and goals.  Not forgetting that most performance art requires a writer's input.

Coming from theatre to writing gave me a head start.  I automatically thought in terms of what if, who and why.  Your "who" had to have their own voice, manner and behaviour as well as objectives.  A character's emotional life was meat and drink to me.  Atmospheric effects - whether external or internal - generated the mood line of the story.  Most important of all, without conflict there is no drama.

An actor learns all this as a matter of course, through training and practice.  But it was only as a teacher and director that I started thinking about it.  It took analysis to realise how much my dramatic experience had informed my writing.

I plan to do some blogs on these areas where drama and writing overlap and see if I can nail how they work for me by way of the crossover.  Next time, conflict.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

How do you get page-turning quality?

It's what we all strive for, to keep the reader hooked.  Is it some mystic imponderable possessed by the chosen few?  Or can anyone learn to do it?  I don't know.  But I do know a few tricks you can learn and apply that will help.

Essentially, it's the art of grabbing your reader by the scruff of the neck and tugging them along with you.  Which is where the old adage comes in - show, don't tell.  Immerse your reader in the action by putting them inside a character's head and hold the viewpoint.

Use cliffhangers to end sections and chapters.  Introduce the next complication, throw in a surprise, but don't resolve it.  Then the reader wants to know what is going to happen and starts the next chapter.

Structure sentences for speed.  If you want to heighten suspense, drag everything out.  Longer sentences, more introspection, plenty of detail - ie slow down time.  If you want to upgrade tension and excitement, roll through faster.  Shorter sentences, more action, less detail - ie speed up time.

Keep description minimal - sketch it in, interspersed with dialogue and introspective stuff (or headspeak).  Keep dialogue fluent and natural (not necessarily realistic) and avoid "speeches".  Break up the text with dialogue and use shorter paragraphs.

Most of all, involve yourself in the story as you write.  Surprise yourself and you'll surprise your reader.

Friday, 1 October 2010

"Pleonasm" - yeah, it foxed me too

I've been asked to say how to avoid pleonasm.  Bit of a poser that, because I didn't know what it meant.

Dictionary says: "The use of more words than are needed to give the sense (eg see with one's eyes)."  A bit like tautology (which I had heard of): "the saying of the same thing twice over in different words (eg arrived one after the other in succession)." It also means "a statement that is necessarily true".  Pleonasm is given as one of the synonyms.

For the writer, this is the curse of loving words.  At least that's my take.  We like the sounds and rhythms, don't we?  We want to use descriptive prose to make our point.  Is it the hidden poet inside us?

Trouble is, the more flowery the language, the more your meaning is obscured.  That doesn't mean you can't use metaphor and simile and all the other wonderful tools which make up the richness of our language.  But - here it comes again - you have to use them sparingly or you lose the effect.  Your reader gets so caught up in the language, they don't hear what you're saying.

However, don't be deterred by the oft-quoted Johnson to "strike it out" when you write something "you think particularly fine".  It was advice he gave to one person he thought was a terrible writer and it was meant to be sarcastic.  Unfortunately it's been touted ever since to much put-upon writers as gospel from the master's mouth.

There's nothing wrong with discovering that you've put something really well.  Good for you - you're improving.  The warning - if you're going to avoid the dreaded pleonasm and tautology - is to write what you mean.  Don't write to impress.  Say it as simply as you can. Write spare.

If I have to reach for the dictionary to check a word, I assume my readers will too.  If I find myself hunting through the thesaurus to find a better way to say something, I instruct myself to put in the first word I thought of.  The thesaurus is to help you avoid too much repetition of the same word.  Or to find something more telling.  It's not to find something more clever.

Don't be clever.  Be clear.  Then you won't go far wrong, and you'll avoid saying the same thing twice.