Looking at Writing from a Different Perspective

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Sometimes, I feel as if I’ve read every piece of writing advice floating out there in the collective consciousness of the Internet. Obviously that’s not true, but the diligent writer is exposed to so much that even the best bits of wisdom can start to seem stale.

Good news, though–you don’t have to get take all your advice from other writers.

Among my many and varied YouTube channel subscriptions are two I’d like to recommend as alternate sources of writing advice/criticism from different disciplines: movies and video games. Not every video on both channels will have direct applications to writing, but a great many of them have interesting things to say about storytelling, characterization, and presentation, so there’s plenty of crossover subjects.

For video games, I present Extra Credits. A collaboration between some incredibly intelligent people across several video-game disciplines (artists, animators, developers/consultants,) they cover a broad range of topics from the importance of integrating gaming into the classroom, to narrative choice and structure, to how the game mechanics influence and limit storytelling potential. (I consider this a must-watch for any video gamer, regardless of its application to writing. Also, on a side note, their sub-series Extra History is fantastically fun and interesting, and they cover all sorts of oft-neglected events and time periods I’ve known absolutely nothing about. Also a recommended watch.)

In the episode I’ve shared, the topic is why video games often tell bad stories, and it was one of the ones that hooked me–but there’s YEARS of episodes to go through, so I’m sure you’ll find plenty more worth your time.

For movies, I present Every Frame a Painting. Yes, film is a visual medium and we writers are working with words instead, but a lot of the same lessons apply.

In the episode I’ve shared, the topic is what the chairs in the film tell you about the characters and the setting, making them a fascinating shorthand object for the scene. When I first saw it, I kept thinking, yes, this is what I need to be doing in my writing, keeping the details minimal by utilizing important, signifying objects. Though not necessarily chairs.

EFP doesn’t have the same deep back-catalog to dive into, so I’d go ahead and say watch them all (unless you come across one for a movie you haven’t seen but intend to–though EFP’s mastermind Tony does diligently warn the viewer of spoilers, so have no fear on that score.)

Again, not all of them will have a direct analogue to writing like the chairs, but I’d usually finish most of them thinking about my own writing from a new angle.

 

10 Dialogue Prompts, Movie Edition: Airplane!

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I’m a sucker for a good movie line, and the other day at work, I tossed out “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue” when things were going very, very wrong.

A handful of coworkers busted their guts laughing, while the rest looked at me funny. Turns out, not everyone’s seen Airplane!

But it gave me the idea to set out some of my favorite lines from the movie as dialogue prompts, because oh, the places they could go.

  1. “It takes so many things to make love last. But most of all, it takes respect, and I can’t live with a man I don’t respect.”
  2. “It’s a damn good thing you don’t know how much he hates your guts.”
  3. “No, I’ve been nervous lots of times.”
  4. “Surely you can’t be serious.”
  5. “You can tell me. I’m a doctor.”
  6. “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking.”
  7. “But what’s most important now is that you remain calm. There is no reason to panic.”
  8. “I can’t tell you that. It’s classified.”
  9. “No… that’s just what they’ll be expecting us to do.”
  10. “What are you doing here? You can’t fly this plane!”

Have fun with them, and keep an ear open for good prompts when you’re watching your favorite movies!

5 More Prompts to Develop Your Characters: Stress

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A person who never suffers any kind of stress would be rare, and a fictional character, next to impossible. What drives interest in a story? Conflict. And with conflict comes stress.

Reactions to stress can be as simple as a single beer after dinner to mellow out from a hard day at work, or as complex and life-altering as self-destructive behaviors like drug abuse.

Both of those, and everything in between, provide tons of meat for your characters’ personalities.

So, let’s find out what sends our characters in search of their happy places.  As always, “they” = the character in question, regardless of gender.

  1. What do they find stressful? External sources, like work, politics, illness, family, trouble with a significant personal relationship, social obligations? Internal sources, like perfectionism or poor time management or forgetfulness?
  2. How to they react in the moment to a stressor? Physical reactions (flight-or-flight response, upset stomach, nervous tics, for example); internal/emotional reactions (anger, anxiety, or grinning and bearing it); or some combination of both? Do they react differently to different sources of stress?
  3. How aware are they of their stressors, and do they actively seek to avoid them?
  4. What do they do to wind down after becoming stressed?
  5. Are there any preventative measures they take to compensate in situations they expect to be stressed?

I hope I’ve given you a new angle to come at your characters, because while they might be reacting to the conflicts of the story, you shouldn’t be stressing about how they’re going to react.


Want more character development prompts?

Writing Homework #4: Drabbles and Self-Editing Practice

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For this assignment, you don’t need to pull any books from your shelves.

You need a drabble prompt, a word-counting app, and about fifteen minutes.

(Feel free to use other sources for either, those are suggestions. I do recommend using an app, though, and not checking word counts in your normal program, because it’s helpful to see the count change in real time.)

I want you to write a drabble–that is, a 100-word scene–based on one of the prompts. Write the first thing that comes to your head, and write fast–don’t overthink it or worry about the exact word count yet. Just aim for a scene that’s short, but still has a clear beginning, end, and purpose.

Then, your goal is to cut it back to 100 words (or less.)

I started with this prompt: Meet me at midnight. Alone.

Without paying attention as I typed, I got 119 words:

My phone buzzed on the nightstand. I wanted to ignore it, but I checked the new text anyway. Billy had been having a rough week.

Meet me at midnight. Alone.

I sighed and dropped my book, dragging myself out of bed. I had half an hour to get dressed and find him, because of course Billy hadn’t said where he was. I had a good idea, at least of where to start looking. The last time I’d gotten a cryptic message like this, I’d ended up at the lake, twenty minutes late.

I hoped this time around, I wasn’t going to need my shovel.

I checked my trunk before I left, though. It was still there, just in case.

So here’s the question–can I cut 19 words without giving up any story elements?

My phone buzzed on the nightstand. I wanted to ignore it, but I checked the new text anyway didn’t. Billy had been was having a rough week.

Meet me at midnight. Alone.

I sighed and dropped my book, dragging myself out of bed. I had half an hour thirty minutes to get dressed and find him, because of course Billy hadn’t said where he was. I had a good idea, at least of where to start looking. The last time I’d gotten a cryptic message like this, I’d ended up at the lake, twenty minutes late.

I hoped this time around, I wasn’t going to wouldn’t need my shovel.

I checked my trunk before I left, though. It was still there, just in case.

I cut 26 words and added 5 new ones, when I shortened a phrase instead of cutting it, leaving me at 98 words.

Let’s look at the changes:

  • “checked the new text anyway” — At first I was going to cut “new” because that’s implied, but so is the fact that it’s a text, not a call, because the narrator doesn’t speak or mention Billy’s voice, then later refers to it as a “message.” The whole clause could go.
  • “had been” — It was acceptable as it stood, but changing tenses not only cuts a word, but makes the tone more immediate since Billy is still having a rough week.
  • “half an hour” — This one is debatable, since most people would say “half an hour” naturally, and I ended up two words under my goal. I could have changed it to “twenty minutes” to both cut the extra word and add more immediacy, but that would have changed a detail, which wasn’t the point of the exercise.
  • “wasn’t going to” — It reads fine, if informal, but “wouldn’t” is cleaner. Don’t complicate your verbs more than necessary.

Everything else is a straight cut of filler or redundancy. I could have even cut the final “just in case” as a trite phrase, but I like it, and it does imply something about how the narrator expects the night to unfold.

I’m deep, deep into this sort of editing on What We Need to Decide, but I know not everyone has a full-length manuscript lying around to practice on. Drabbles are quick to write, making them handy mini-editing lessons.

Give it a try, and if you’d like to share your finished drabbles, leave them in the comments–I’d love to read them!

Writing Homework #3: Chapter Breaks

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We talked about first lines last time, so now, let’s talk about last lines. Not last last lines, because ending the whole story is a topic worth covering on its own; today, I want us to study chapter breaks.

Now, I’m not concerning myself here with how long a chapter is–it’s a common question I’ve seen asked writing advice blogs, and the answer is invariably “As long as it needs to be.” I want to take a look at how the chapters end.

Chapter breaks serve two purposes that almost seem conflicting: they divide a story into manageable chunks and give a reader easy places to set down the book for a while, but they also need to keep the reader interested and make them want to turn that page, to keep going.

So, they’re kind of a big deal, and they don’t get talked about much that I’ve seen.

I want you to pick a familiar book off your shelf with distinct breaks, be it chapters or sections or days, as long as one chunk of text can be clearly separated from the next. I don’t recommend an unread book for this exercise, as I have with the other assignments so far, because a) spoilers, and b) the tone of each chapter is important for this, so you won’t know if you haven’t read it.

For as many chapters as you want to look at, write down the chapter number and title, if it has one. Then skim the chapter for the major tone–is it action, tension, flashback, character study-ish, and so forth–and note that down. Then copy out the final line.

Once you’ve got a chunk of chapters done (or the whole book, if you want to be ambitious), take a look at how each line relates to the tone of both its own chapter and the one following it.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Is this a closed ending, or an open one? A closed ending provides a sense of finality to the content of the chapter, which is helpful for dividing chapters of wildly different tones; but open endings leave a question in the reader’s mind and drive them to keep reading for the answer.
  • Does the tone of the final line match the tone of the chapter, and if it doesn’t, does it match the next one? Matching tones will provide a complete feeling, while different tones can heighten tension–for example, a chapter that is mostly conversation ending with sudden action, to set up for an action chapter.
  • How successful is this line at making me want to turn the page? And if you find any that don’t push you to keep reading, how might you change them? Where else in the chapter would you have ended it?
  • Is there a balance to the tones of each chapter ending, or does one dominate over the others? I’ve got an example here, though it’s not from a book. I recently watched the anime Death Note, and I loved it for its twisted worldview, fascinating characters, and tight mystery writing. What I didn’t love as much was that nearly every episode ended on a cliffhanger. Some were bigger cliffhangers than others, so there was a little relief from time to time, but the final half the series, especially, was a long run of ever-escalating tension. And for that particular story, even if I didn’t love it, I can see how it was an effective strategy. On the other hand, if every single chapter in Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone ended on a cliffhanger…well, that wouldn’t work, now, would it?

Writing Homework #2: The Worst First Line I Have Ever Read

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Since I contribute writing advice to the vast jumble of the internet, I also read a lot of it, and there is a lot that’s been said on first lines.  I’ve even written some of it.

When I read, I’m not hyper-critical of first lines. I’m usually not even that harsh on first paragraphs or pages.  If I’m not into it by the end of the prologue/first chapter, that’s usually where my cut-off is, so I guess you could call me generous that way.

But a few days ago, starting another free romance on my Kindle, I came across the worst first line I’ve ever read.

I’m not going to give the name of the book, because I’m not that mean.  A large part of my literary heart still feels like judging an entire book from a single line and giving up on it is unfair…so I’ll keep this anonymous.  But I picked up the book based on an interesting blurb and a 4.5 star rating across several hundred reviews, so I honestly thought, going in, that it was going to be a decent read.  I’ve certainly been surprised by less.

So here they are, the four words that made me drop my Kindle into my lap in shock:

“My parents are dead.”

Yeah.

Think about that for a second.

“My parents are dead.”

Where do I even start talking about how terrible an opening line this is, according to every bit of writing wisdom out there?

  1. It’s backstory. Don’t lead with backstory. Lead with action.
  2. This is my first impression of the narrator. Is the fact that her parents are dead really the most important thing about her, so that it needs to be conveyed to the reader immediately? Isn’t that something that can wait, so it can have context?
  3. Not that this couldn’t be forgiven if the rest of the story turns out to be solid, but the absent/dead parents trope is overused.  In YA especially, to give the young protagonists more freedom than they would otherwise have, but it pops up in romance a lot as well, for the easy access to a tragic past. Boooooring.
  4. The only interesting thing about the sentence itself is the shock value, which is negligible at best, since we don’t know anything else about the narrator yet.  It isn’t descriptive enough to be a compelling hook, like “When I was ten, my parents died in a hot-air balloon accident, and I still don’t know how I survived.”  (I’m not saying that’s an amazing opening line, but it’s got a little more oomph, right? Because it sets up a little mystery around the narrator.)

So, this time your homework is to study some opening lines.  Do as many as you want, and again, I’d suggest a mix of some books you’ve read and some you haven’t. Ask yourself with each one if you think it’s a strong beginning, or not, and why.  Which commonly accepted conventions does it follow, and which does it break?  If you think it’s weak, how could you rewrite it to make it stronger? Or, for bonus points, are there stronger sentences on the first page that would have made better opening lines?  Could they be moved to the beginning, or does everything ahead of them need to be cut?

As for the book that inspired this exercise, I did tough it out to the end of the first chapter before I gave up.  It was ten pages long and covered eight years of backstory in the narrator’s life.  I would much rather have gotten all that information spaced out over the first few chapters, and this is a romance, for pity’s sake!  Couldn’t there be character discovery through dialogue?  Couldn’t the romantic hero be curious about the narrator’s past?  If/when she tells Mr. Right everything laid out in the first chapter, it’s all going to be rehash to me, the reader, and there was nothing there so interesting I’d look forward to hearing it twice.

I do not feel any guilt about setting this one aside.

5 More Prompts to Help You Develop Your Characters: Music

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It’s been too long since my last prompts post–I really need to sit down and organize my various series, so I can keep track of them better! (You can find all my prompts posts here.)

Since I’ve had music on the brain lately, and the plot bunny that won’t go away while I finish up the current project draft is about a band (squee! I heart musicians!), it seemed like a perfect topic to tackle next.

So, let’s do this.  As always, “they” = the character in question, regardless of gender.

  1. Are they a music fan at all, or do they manage to go through life without being exposed to it much? Do they actively avoid music for any reason?
  2. If they do listen, then to what? Mainstream radio, or a particular genre? Current music, or older music from a particular era, or a particular time in their life?
  3. How do they listen? Vinyl for purism or nostalgia, or have they embraced the digital age?
  4. Where do they listen? At home, or do they have a job where listening is okay? Do they have a job where the radio is always on and they have no choice? Have they got music going at the gym or on a run? Do they sing along in the car or in the shower? Pro lip-syncer, or do they actually sing? Well, or badly?  And do they care?
  5. Do they have friends/family who they talk music with, or is their love of music a solitary thing? Do they live with someone who doesn’t share their taste in music, and how does that affect them, or their relationship with that person?  (Story time: I had a roommate in college who had a CD player/radio/alarm clock combo.  I spent an entire semester waking up to Rent.  I am so very, very tired of Rent, to the point where I can’t listen to it ever again, even now.)

Until next time, enjoy the prompts and have fun fleshing out those characters!