Monday, 15 November 2010

Motivation - okay, why?

Because motivation is why.  It's not just a case of why a character has a goal - which I think comes under backstory - but why is he feeling, doing, saying anything.

In drama, there's a general rule that if you can't remember a line you're missing a "thought bridge".  How do you get from one line to the next?  The character may be prompted thoughtwise by another character's line, but actually there is almost always a thought bridge from their own last line to this one.  It's what Stanislavski calls the "through line of action" and what is normally thought of as subtext.  The thought behind the line is the why of saying the line.

Once again, we have the advantage as writers to be able to express the thought bridge to the reader in the character's head.  It's not always needed - trust your reader to put it there himself if you've primed the ground.  And as a writer you won't need to think this through because it's almost always automatic.  But if you stick, this is a good way to unstick yourself.

Look at your character's last set of thoughts.  Do they progress logically from what has gone before?  Has, for example, our hero been extremely rude so that our heroine has lost it and isn't thinking straight?  OK, so now she's calming down and realising what she said back, which provides the why of what she says or does next - apology or defiance, depending on the circumstances.

As a director, you see the play as a series of moments, and direct it moment by moment.  Similarly with a novel.  It progresses moment to moment - regardless of whether the next moment happens two months later.  Each moment has its prompter behind (the why) and in itself provides the next prompt to feeling, thought, speech and action.

If you think with why, you automatically create depth and character because motivation is the meat upon which we all feed and operate in life, and which dictates who we are and who we become.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Building atmosphere

When you direct a play, you have to think about what's usually called the mood line.  You can check this against any good movie and see it in action.  Works like this:

Opening: pre- and during credits, your director tells you what kind of movie this is going to be, using sound, light and images.  He plays on your emotions by setting the atmosphere.  Example:  the drone of aircraft and a gradual increase of light to an image of a squadron of bombers on the runway waiting to take off is the opening to Catch 22.  Sometimes, you'll get silence and then building images, or birdsong, or a cityscape accompanied by music appropriate to the genre.

With a novel, you have the added advantage of being able to introduce the character's thoughts.  But you can also use visuals, sound and exterior forces (weather, for example) to create your opening atmosphere.  Think of the emotional impact you want to have on your reader, and then build the word picture to give them that.

The mood line goes on from there, running alongside your plot-line to build in highs and lows, changes of pace and tension, shifting into high gear for the climax and coming down for the denouement.  Atmosphere at any point contributes to the mood line.  I recall an editor critiquing the "relentless pace" of my then novel, giving the reader no time to breathe.  She was right.

The key is to surprise your reader, but make the progression from one mood to another logical.  Be careful of shoving in a completely inappropriate scene that will confuse genre on your reader.  For example, you can't expect to suspend disbelief if you have your rom com heroine kidnapped at knife point, unless you're writing a comedy thriller.

Because in the last analysis, genre to a large extent dictates the atmosphere.  A great deal depends on fulfilling reader expectations.  On the other hand, any drama has its lighter moments, and vice versa.  Try not to stray too far at any point from the basic atmosphere you created in your opening, because that tells your reader what sort of story to expect.

Monday, 1 November 2010

What about conflict then?

According to the kids when I was teaching drama, conflict was people shouting each other down.  Seems to work for Eastenders too.  But conflict isn't simply one view opposing another.  It goes deeper.  There has to be a goal involved.

A frequent problem in manuscripts I assess is uncertainty about the goals of the main character.  If you haven't got that, you won't get conflict.  You can't have a character tossed about from pillar to post because of outside opposition and call that conflict.  Real conflict comes from opposition hitting against what your character wants and is trying to achieve.

You also want to think with exterior and internal conflict.  What flaw or lack within them stops them from getting there?  That's opposition too.  Of course you will have opposing forces - other characters who want something else, the forces of nature or circumstances militating against the goal.  But balance this with the character's own uncertainties and traits that also work to prevent them reaching the target.

In drama, you automatically look within the character for what is stopping them from making it.  Clues are in the script.  What they say about themselves, what others say about them and to them, and stage directions.  In fiction, you are working from the inside out.  Your character develops as you write and from inside their head you tell the reader their fears and insecurities as well as creating the external forces that oppose them.

The point is that conflict from within impels your character to dig down deep inside the core of themselves and find the inner resources to overcome their flaws and fears.  The best superheroes show us their own vulnerabilities before they vanquish the baddies.  So it should be with your fictional hero.

A simple guideline.  What does this person want?  What within them stops them going for it?  Who or what external force is going to work against them?  Answer these questions and you've got worthwhile conflict.