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!

Writing Homework #6: Picture Prompts, Emotive Description, and Prewriting

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Find a beautiful picture, or pause a video on something gorgeous–but without people. They’d only get in the way, for this exercise.

Your task is to write a short description of the setting, but do it twice. Once as straight description, factual and precise.

Then write it again, adding a narrator (either first- or third-person is fine) and try to convey some emotion, without creating an entire scene–nothing big has to happen.

The exact emotion is up to you–what inspires you about the picture? Go with that. Or how could you do something unexpected with it, take it in a direction at odds with the visual? Try that, if you’re feeling adventurous.

The multi-level terrace overlooks the sea. It is tiled in mottled brown. The walls are mortared cobblestone, topped with white plasterwork. Bushes grow in planters built into the walls. There are two seating areas, both have small, white tables. One has a red dining chair, and the other has two lounge chairs, dark wood frames with white cushions.

Beyond the terrace is a hill of bare dirt and rock. The water below is calm and reflects the sun. In the near distance, another stretch of land creates a bay, but the details are obscured.

There’s nothing inaccurate about this description, and if I read this in a book, I’d probably imagine something resembling the picture above. Sure, I wouldn’t necessarily have the layout correct, but it would be close.

Now let’s look at the downfall of plain description. What are my verbs? Overlooks, is, are, grow, are, have, has, has, is, is, creates, are. Twelve verbs, and nine of them are forms of to be or to have.

Boooooooring.

Let’s try this again, and get a person involved.

Will stood on the upper level of the terrace, staring at the empty lounge chairs below. He should have been sitting in one of them, with Cynthia in the other, laughing at some witticism of his while they admired the sunset.

A thorn bit his finger. Will realized he’d been picking at the branches of the shrubs planted along the cobblestone wall, pulling off the new growth at the tips. He sucked the bead of blood off his skin and stepped away–the hotel wouldn’t thank him for destroying their property.

But standing at the wall gave him something to do–gazing at the sea was a reasonable pastime. Without it, he had no purpose on the terrace. If he sat down at one of the pristine white tables in the small dining area, with its posh, red-upholstered chairs, a handsomely uniformed waiter would come out to offer him espresso or wine or a plate of cheeses with names Will couldn’t pronounce. If he ordered something, he admitted defeat.

He wouldn’t be waiting for Cynthia anymore, but dining alone.

Did I get every detail from the original description in? Nope. Does that matter? Not really.

When you first saw the picture, was loneliness what occurred to you? Probably not. It’s a gorgeous view that easily could have inspired feelings of beauty or romance or relaxation. But I saw those two empty lounge chairs and knew I could make the description convey the absence of a loved one, rather than their presence.

Getting a person and some mild action involved in the description works wonders for verb choice, too. I’ve still got some forms of to be and to have in there, but Wills stands and stares and picks and steps and gazes.

I don’t think anyone would argue that the first passage is better than the second, but I couldn’t have written the second without the first. I’m not saying all good description needs to go through two phases, but prewriting is a valuable tool–fleshing out the setting of a scene with concrete, uninflected detail to fix it in your mind allows you to then choose the details that matter for the scene and plan how to work them in. (Especially if you’re not working from a picture–then establishing the particulars of the immediate setting in prewriting is even more helpful, since it becomes the only reference outside of your imagination.)

If you get stuck giving your characters space to hang out in while they have their conversations or fight scenes or sneaky-stealthy spy sequences, step back, take the characters out, and just describe the setting. Pack in as much detail as you want, knowing only the best, most useful stuff will come with you to the real draft. Let yourself go nuts.

Then throw your characters back in, and poof! They’ll have space to play in.


Need to get caught up on your assignments?

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?

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!

Writing Homework #1: Studying Description

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So, fellow writers, here’s what I want you to do.

Pick a book from your shelf.  It doesn’t matter if it’s one you’ve read before or not–we’ll get to that in a bit.

Start at the beginning and read until you reach a sentence that is entirely description, whether it’s for a character, object, or setting.

Write that sentence down, then work out everything it actually tells you.

My first example, from a favorite of mine, The Wizard of Earthsea:

Below the village the pastures and plowlands of the Vale slope downward level below level towards the sea, and other towns lie on the bends of the River Ar; above the village only forest rises ridge behind ridge to the stone and snow of the heights.

This comes at the middle of the second long paragraph–early, but not instantly.

What does this tell me?

  • [From the very first sentence, I already know we’re on an island. I want to mention this so I can refer to it without confusing anyone…]
  • The island contains several different types of landscapes: forest, farms, a river, and mountains high enough to get snow.
  • “Pastures and plowlands” means there are both crop-farming and animal-raising going on, though we don’t know which crops or what livestock.
  • “Vale” plus a river means the part of the island being described here is a river valley.
  • The village in question is the highest village in the valley, because there is nothing above it but forest and stone–it’s remote.

Why is this important?  Our wizard Ged has a humble beginning (as they so often do) in an isolated village, far from the more sophisticated civilization of the world, and that becomes important in his character development.  It’s established early (and often, with further description to come) what Ged’s home is like, both the village and the valley around it.  The scenery isn’t just about painting an impressive picture of the world, but giving the reader insight into the characters who live there, who grew up there, who were formed by their environment.

I know this because I’ve read this many times, so I see where the description is leading me, and what purpose it’s meant to serve.

But what about a book I haven’t read yet?

I grabbed The Night Circus from my TBR shelf, because I hope to get to it soon.  Let’s see what I find.

From the first page, third paragraph:

The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen.

So what does this tell me? Not as much as AWoE, but to be fair, it’s a far shorter sentence.

  • [And we’ve already established from the title and first line we’re discussing a circus, so off we go…]
  • We know the tents are tall and striped in black and white.  I know that’s obvious, bear with me, please–
  • But by deliberately mentioning two brighter, more vivid colors the tents are not, this stops being a simple observation, and becomes a statement of how different this circus is from your garden-variety circuses, which usually riot with color.

Now, I haven’t read this yet, so that’s as far as I can go with my analysis; but already, a strong image has been created in my mind.  (Aided by the cover, too, in this case, which is gorgeous.)

So what have we learned about descriptive styles from only these two examples?

AWoE uses a long, lyrical sentence to provide a lot of information about the setting quickly, and extra meaning can be teased out of word choice.  TNC uses a short, emphatic sentence to say less, but make its message clear and powerful.  (I could hardly have picked better contrasting examples if I tried, which I totally didn’t.  I browsed a few of my favorites for good lines to analyze before settling, then grabbed TNC without opening it, so my reading would be honest.)

Both styles have advantages, and in AWoE‘s case, the expansive tone matches the landscape and the style of the rest of the prose–long sentences with little punctuation (less than I’d use, certainly, being a comma devotee) but vivid word choice.  As for TNC, I’ll have to read the rest to find out.

Your homework, should you choose to accept it, is to try this exercise with at least two books, one you’ve read and one you haven’t.  And more, certainly, if you like! If you want to go deeper, ask yourself these questions about what those first description-only sentences tell you:

  • [Read] Does this particular bit of description set the tone for the book? Does it tie into the theme? Does it reveal something important about the character(s)?
  • [Unread] What do I expect, based on this first description? What can I predict, if anything?

And then, apply this to your own work.  How strong is your first descriptive sentence?  Do you even have a single one, or are your descriptions dribbled in piece by piece through dialogue or action sentences?  What’s your style, and how does it fit the tone of your piece?  (Or does it?)

It’s Time to Talk About Tropes #3: Love Triangles

So many readers abhor love triangles in stories, and yet it’s an incredibly common trope.

Why?

We’re going to have to dig a little deeper on this one, compared to the easy fixes for long hair and glasses.

Why is the love-triangle trope so prevalent, particularly in romance and YA?

It’s an easy source of conflict.  Don’t have enough stumbling blocks between your heroine and her one true love? Time to shoehorn in another potential romantic interest.  Bonus points if he’s the dark, mysterious, brooding type, because portraying the second guy as a bad boy gives the heroine (and the readers) an excuse to swoon over him, without him really threatening Mr. Destiny’s chances to get the girl in the end.

It’s an easy way to make the heroine seem attractive without actually developing her personality.  Because she must be amazing if not one, but two men are attracted to, or in love, with her, right?

It’s an easy role to toss onto a character that isn’t doing much else.  Need an extra guy around for some plot point, for whatever reason, then we never have to see him again?  So why was he there at all?  Because he’s got the hots for the heroine, problem solved.

Okay, so here comes the tough love.  How can we, as writers, fix this?

First–do you really need a love triangle?  Deep down, at the heart of your story, is that the point?  Because if it is, it can be done, and it can be done well.  Your romantic lead can feel conflicted about choosing between two partners–that’s a story.  But if it’s not the story, then you probably don’t need it.  So just don’t do it.  Find another minor conflict to throw at your lovers instead of a third wheel.

Second–okay, so the story you want to tell really is a love triangle.  Make both choices equally compelling.  Don’t set it up from the start that Mary and Jim are meant to be together, but that Rick, woooo boy, isn’t he something.  Give equal development weight to both options.  Make their personalities different in ways that aren’t just nice-guy/bad-boy.  Give them different appealing qualities, and give them different flaws.  Maybe Mary is initially attracted to Jim because he never fails to make her laugh.  Rick isn’t nearly as witty, but then, he’s got an adventurous side that makes her want to stretch herself, to try new things.  On the downside, as hilarious as Jim is, he’s got anger issues he’d rather live with than address, and Rick’s so fun-loving he can’t always meet his responsibilities.

See?  Yeah, those are just quick sketches, not actual characters, but neither choice is perfect.  If I sat down to write that story, I don’t even know who Mary would end up with, because neither man is perfect–neither is obviously the right choice.  And that creates real tension.  The guy who wins her heart in the end could be the one who decides to work on his flaws, to be the better person for her, instead of dismiss them–and that could be either one.

Third–Don’t pit the two love interests against each other directly.  No fistfights, please! Again, that’s an easy source of conflict, but a lover isn’t a bone for two dogs to fight over. And if for some reason you just have to have that fistfight…make her disgusted with both of them for acting like angry boys instead of adults, or something.  Let’s not reinforce another horribly-handled trope, that women (and the love/sex that come with them) exist as the reward for men who prove themselves in some way.  Like winning the fight, ugh.

So that’s my take on what needs to happen for a love triangle not to make me rage and throw the book across the room.  I haven’t even come close to covering every angle, so chime in on what else can be done to save this trope from the trash-heap!

5 More Prompts to Help You Develop Your Characters: The Holidays Edition

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Christmas baking and Christmas crafting and Christmas shopping are all on my mind these days.  (I actually have a batch of cookies in the oven right now, and I’ve got a few things to order this afternoon…)

Not every story needs to feature holiday festivities, and not every setting celebrates Christmas–so if you’re making up your own world and cultures with their own traditions, well, just apply these loosely to your worldbuilding instead.

  1. Does your main character celebrate a winter holiday actively, and if so, which one?
  2. What kind of gift-giver are they?  Gift cards, barely-trying generic presents or well-chosen ones, homemade treats or handmade items?
  3. Who do they celebrate with, and why?  Is there anyone coming the family (or friends) gathering they don’t want to see?  Is anyone likely to cause a scene if someone else says the wrong thing, or something goes wrong?
  4. Is your character’s occupation something likely to make them work on Christmas, or is there another reason they might be away from family?  How do they spend the holiday then–do they celebrate on a different day, call home when they can, or skip the holiday altogether?
  5. What family or childhood traditions might they still keep as an adult? Which new traditions have they introduced since?

Time to go check on the cookies!