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Thursday, November 26, 2015

Tips for Fiction Writers: #10 There Must Be Resistance in Every Scene

Tips for Fiction Writers: #10  There Must Be Resistance in Every Scene

Let's say you're writing your story.  And, your protagonist needs help. So he calls for help:

Mary:  "Tom, I need your help!"
 Tom:  "I'll be right there, Mary."

How was that?  Interesting. No.  Moves the story forward?  No.  It does almost nothing at all because there's no resistance in the dialogue.  No opposition.  Our stories are about conflict. All of them. And with our stories our characters must meet resistance.  Try these instead:

Mary:  "Tom, I need your help!"
 Tom:  "Mary, I'm just walking into a job interview. I'll call you back."
The Truth Will Sock You
in the Gut

Mary:  "Tom, I need your help!"
 Tom:  "Why do you keep calling?"

Mary:  "Tom, I need your help!"
 Tom:  "Mary, I can't come every time you call."

Mary:  "Tom, I need your help!"
 Tom:  "I told you never to call me at home!"

See how the story advances?

Here's a famous telephone scene from a film.  It's when Joe Turner (Robert Redford) calls the CIA for help. Yes, it's from Three Days of the Condor.  Joe is a reader for the CIA. That's all he does. He reads and reads looking for tips and tricks that can help the CIA.

Then one morning Joe returns to work at their downtown office- a CIA cover, and everyone is dead. Slaughtered.

          He runs out the door to a pay phone. Dials 911.
"Police Headquarters." 
(Realizing they can't help, he hangs up.) Click. (He dials a prearranged number he has memorized.)
"Hello," he says.
"This is the Major."
"This is Joe Turner.  Listen . . ."
Product Details"What? I told you, My name's Turner. I work for you. Something's happened. Somebody came in and . . ."
"What is your designation."
"This is . . . Oh! . . . Condor. Section 9, Department 17. Everyone's been hit!"
"What level?"
"Level of damage."
"Total. Everybody! Janice. Dr. Lappe, and Harold was in the--"
"Are you on a company line?"
"I'm in the street. It's a payphone near--."
"You're in violation of secure conversations, Condor."
"You stupid son of a bitch! I'm telling you, I came back with lunch, it was raining, and the whole house was murdered! Everyone's dead!"
"Right. Has the incident been discovered by anyone outside the company?"
"I don't know. I don't think so." 
"Are you damaged?"
"Damaged? ... uh, no."
"Are you armed?"
"I've got Mrs. -- what's her name? Nightingale?  She was afraid of being raped. She kept a gun--"
"Identify the armament."
".... 357 Magnum. Will you get me in? I'm not a field agent. I just read books!"
"Leave the area."
"Should I head downtown now?
"Negative. Find a secure location."
"Avoid any place where you are known. Do not go home. Repeat--Do not go home.  
"Then where? Where's secure?"
"Condor, look up an old friend."
"A schoolchum. Someone you've lost touch with, haven't been seeing. Try the phone book. Surface again and call the Major in two hours. . .that'll be 14:30 your time. Do you have it Condor?"
"Walk away from the phone, Condor. Don't hang up."

Okay, this is a thriller, and the conversation is thrilling.  And it's telephone conversation. But maybe it's a regular conversation, face to face, you're writing, and it's a drama, or a love story, or a comedy. Is there still conflict, friction, resistance?  Yes.  

Here's from When Harry Met Sally. (Again, I'm using a film as an example, because we've seen more of the same movies than we've read the same books.) 

You remember one of the first scenes: Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) have just met and they have to share a long drive together, from Chicago to New York.  Pretty simple, huh?  Take a look at the opposition in the scene?  What do we learn about the characters? Does this scene push the story foward? 

Product DetailsHarry: "I hope this isn't going to be one of those trips with a lot of long, awkward silences."
Sally: "Me too."
"Why don't you tell me the story of your life." 
"The story of my life?"
"We've got 18 hours to kill before we get to New York."
"The story of my life isn't even going to get us out of Chicago. I mean, nothing's happened to me yet. That's why I'm going to New York."
"So something can happen to you?"
"Like what?"
"Like I'm going to go to journalism school and become a reporter."
"So you can write about things that happen to other people?"
"That's one way to look at it."
"Suppose nothing happens to you. Suppose you live there your whole life and nothing happens and you never meet anyone and you never become anything and finally you die one of those New York deaths where nobody even notices for two weeks until the smell drifts out into the hallway."
"Amanda mentioned you had a dark side."
"That's what drew her to me."  
Even in comedy there is opposition. How much do we know now about the characters here? What kind of people are they? Do you like them?  And note how each sentence is so carefully written that we don't even have to be told who is speaking. We know from the previous sentence or because it's within the character of the person who is saying it.

Point: Opposition moves the story foward. 

Point: In opposition we learn more about each character. 

Point: Every scene should have opposition, or else it's boring. Yes, boring.  


Choose a script, any script. Just Google the script for your favorite movie. Godfather? Okay. Love Story? Okay. Shakespeare? Even better. Or choose your favorite character - Whoopie, or Denzel, or Hamlet, or anyone, and look at how the story moves on the pages. See how there's oppostion in each scene. Watch how the oppostion moves the story without the viewer/reader even being aware of it. 

Then we go back to our own writings. See where our stories aren't advance because of no opposition. Maybe people are just doing stuff. Make it better. Bring out the opposition!

  And, Happy Writing.


Sunday, November 15, 2015

TIPS FOR FICTION WRITERS: #9 In Writing Dialogue, Don't Use 'Yes' or 'No.'

TIPS FOR FICTION WRITERS: #9  In Writing Dialogue, Don't Use 'Yes' or 'No.'

When was the last time you heard someone 
answer a question directly with a “yes” or “no.”

Here’s an example.
Sarah: “Did you have sex with her?”
 Tony: “Yes, I did.”

Would Tony really speak like that?  Probably not.

Point: People don’t say what they mean. Our characters shouldn’t either. Our characters should dance around it. Allude to it. Evade saying it. Avoid saying it. Then its real.

Does his answer, “Yes, I did,” push the story forward? 
Not at all.

So, how can we improve it so there's new information about Sarah and Tony?

How about these?:

Sarah: “Did you have sex with her?”
 Tony: “It wasn’t sex.”  (It was love? Something else? Now we want to know more.)

Sarah: “Did you have sex with her?”
 Tony: “If you call that sex.” (It wasn’t so good, huh?)

 Sarah: “Did you have sex with her?”
  Tony: “Everyone needs a first.”  (It was his first time.)

Sarah: “Did you have sex with her?”
 Tony: “You jealous?”  (They were former boyfriend-girlfriend.)

Sarah: “Did you have sex with her?”
 Tony: “There wasn’t enough time.” (He would have, but he didn’t.)

Sarah: “Did you have sex with her?”
  Tony: “Are you kidding?”  (Hmmm. What could this mean?)

Sarah: “Did you have sex with her?”
  Tony: “Like you care.”  (He’s noncommittal. He still has feelings for Sarah.)

Sarah: “Did you have sex with her?”
  Tony: “What’s that supposed to mean?” (Typical guy.)

Sarah: “Did you have sex with her?”
 Tony: “Do you know how old she is?”  (Noncommittal –new info- maybe young, maybe old.)

Sarah: “Did you have sex with her?”
  Tony: “What do you think?”  (Noncommittal – and we’ll know more about Sarah by her response.)

Sarah: “Did you have sex with her?”
  Tony: “You’re the one I love.”  (Noncommittal – but we know more about them.)

Sarah: “Did you have sex with her!”
 Tony:  (Add your own answer)

In each of these cases Tony did not say "Yes" or "No." But the dialogue was real.  And “Yes” or “No” was implied in each response as the dialogue introduced new information. It advanced the story.


Look at the dialogue in our own stories.  Are there any Yes’s or No’s where there could be something better? Again, we (you and me) don’t really say what they mean. Our characters shouldn’t either. They should dance around what they mean. Evade it. Avoid saying it. The reader will understand. 

There’s the old writer’s dictum: If your characters say what they really mean, the story is in trouble.

So, really, when was the last time we heard someone answer directly? 
(Probably in a court of law.)

How do we learn to write better dialogues. It's simple. By listening carefully to the people around us. Use real dialogue and our stories will be smoother, fuller, and move much more quickly. 

 Happy writing. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015



Our stories are not like real life. Our main character does not go to the bathroom twice a day. Our main character does not wash the dishes or shop for tomatoes. Or clean the fridge. Our main character probably does not wonder about the calories in his or her meal.

Why not? Because in our stories all the little things in life are pushed aside. Our story--the decisions of our protagonist--come to the front. That he or she takes risks.
Annie Taylor Discovers the darkest lie of all.
(Coming Soon)
What is the story? It always centers around a decision our main character makes. Our story centers around a dire risk that the protagonist chooses. Of course our characters each have their own desire. That’s what moves them forward in our stories. But our main character must have the strongest desire of all, so strong that he or she will risk everything.

That risk must also change his or her world. Not the planet. Just his or her personal world. And if he or she fails, it’s not regular life that returns, but a wholly different and unwanted life. Our character risks everything.

Take the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The 'inciting incident' (see previous 'tips' about this) is when Katniss' sister Prim is chosen to fight in the Hunger Games. Katniss steps forward, pulls her sister aside, and takes her place knowing she will almost surely die.  All is risked. It's all or nothing.

Or take Jodi Picoults story, Larger Than Life.  It's about a wildlife researcher in Africa who goes against every rule: Rather than let a baby elephant die as it naturally would without it's mother, she brings it back to her tent.
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Okay, that doesn’t seem like much. The researcher is not going to die, like in The Hunger Games. The world will not collapse even if the baby elephant dies. The sun will not explode. No nukes will detonate as they might for Jack Bauer. 

But within her life, within the context of her story, the risk is enormous.  If she is found out, she would lose her credentials and her career.  Her life as a research would be over. And, because she's taken this risk, we are pulling for her. We are concerned for her.  We like her and want her to succeed. Of course we like the baby elephant too.  And how the heck is she going to hide a baby elephant in her tent?  You'll have to read the story to find out. 

Or take Mildred Pierce. That’s the name of the novel by James M. Cain and the HBO miniseries. Who is she? She’s a middle class housewife in the 1930’s, a victim of the depression, who is stuck with a worthless husband, and who has two daughters, Veda and Ray.

Product DetailsWhat does she risk? She risks being even poorer by kicking her loser husband out. She risks the scorn of her children by deciding to take a menial job as a waitress. She even has to hide her uniform from priggish and abusive daughter Veda who will do everything to not be seen as “common.”

Not much of a risk, you’re thinking? Wrong. In the context of the story it is everything—the loss of the respect of her children.
What else does she risk? She risks starting a restaurant. In the midst depression.  

Okay, I understand; it's not a Jack Bauer moment where Los Angeles will blow up or the president will be assignated. But given Mildred Pierce's world, it's enough. And we feel that because the author has successfully brought us inside her world. 

And yes, Mildred Pierce's risk will evoke an opposition, an antagonism, from the world around her and its peoples. That’s what makes her risk even greater.

In short, Mildred’s risk is everything in her own world. If she fails, she’ll be worse than penniless. She’ll be in the street.  She’ll lose the respect of Veda. She’ll be left with nothing at all.

When you're reading a book or even watching a TV drama, ask yourself what happens if the protagonist fails. If he or she just goes back to the same old job and life, then the risk isn't great enough, isn't interesting enough. And it's not enough for our stories either.

What happens to Mildred Pierce?  Sorry, no spoilers here.

As you read your next novel or watch a movie or TV drama, look for the choices the characters make. Big or small to us, they will be huge to the character himself or herself. 
Adam Snow says he 
didn't do it.  Sure.
Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen if the protagonist fails?” That's the question that the author of the story has already posed to himself or herself. 

The answer to that question is what draws us in. It makes us care. It will make us follow the story from beginning to end.

Summary: Our protagonist makes a choice. It could be Jack Bauer returning to save Los Angeles from an atomic bomb, or it could be Mildred Pierce taking a waitress job. 

The character takes an action hoping for success, hoping that the world will receive their actions well; but instead that same choice raises the steady forces of antagonism against them.

That’s what a good story is. 

Friday, August 7, 2015




Okay, you’ve got an idea for a story. Now you want to make it work in a really winning way. Your first step is the Protagonist.  That’s the leading character in your story. Here is the first tip to making a great protagonist.

Empathy: Empathy isn’t sympathy. Sympathy is when we feel sorry for a person.  Empathy is when we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

Your reader must be able to empathize with—identify with—the protagonist; there must be some shared piece of humanity between your protagonist and your reader.

Your reader should be unconsciously rooting for your protagonist. Getting behind your protagonist. The reader should be able to feel like he or she is in the protagonist’s shoes. This creates a bond between your reader and the protagonist. They want your protagonist to succeed. They want to keep reading to see what happens.

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You may remember Max Dembo. That’s the character Dustin Hoffman plays in the fine film Straight Time.  (I’m using a film here as an example because more of us have seen the same films than read the same books.)

Max is an ex-con. Just out of jail. Yes, a criminal. But we still like him. He’s gentle. He’s vulnerable. He’s a worldly guy. He wins us over with that hesitant, Dustin Hoffman smile.  He also wins over Jenny Mercer who works at a canning factory. Hmmm.

You’ve already figured out that Max doesn’t go straight. And he can’t, not after he handcuffs his parole officer to a highway divider, with his pants down, no less. Oops.  But we love him for it, don’t we. Max has been treated badly by the parole officer, and now the guy gets his due. We are for Max. We are with him. We want things to work out. We empathize.

Now Max is on the run, and he’s back to his old tricks. He robs a market, a jewelry store, and even a bank. But we are still with him. Yes, we like the criminal. We feel his tension. We feel his need. His tension becomes our tension. We root for him to get away with it, with all of it.  How does it work out?  No spoilers here.  You’ll have to get the film.

This means that your protagonist doesn’t have to be a goody-goody.  Vito Corleone wasn’t a goody-goody.  Nor were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Certainly not Jack Bauer. You could make a list. But what they all have in common is that we can ‘relate’. We can empathize. We actually like them. There is humanity there for all of them.

Or take Jodi Picoult’s fine novel House Rules.
Here there are a number of protagonists:
Product Details 
Emma, the mother coping with a teenager with Asperger’s.  Are you a parent? Does your kid have a problem? Then you’ll understand. 

Then there’s Jacob, the teenager with Asperger’s. He can only think literally. No nuances. You can’t say “Catch you later” or "Give me a break," because he'll take it literally. No exceptions. And Jacob is a budding crime buster. With his special mental acuity, he figures things out that the police can’t. We like him. We love him. So endearing, he wins us over.

Oh, and don’t forget Theo, the brother who is always in second place next to his brother Jacob with all his special needs. We like Theo too.  Except that he was at the crime scene also. He’s not perfect, just like we’re not perfect. We can relate.

And Rich, the kind detective who learns to be a better detective from Jacob. And then he has to accuse Jacob of a heinous crime. And arrest him. We feel divided, just like Rich does. We are torn too. Oh, and did I mention that Rich is attracted to Jacob’s mother, Emma?  Hmmm, how will that work out?
4 protagonists that we care about even though they are in conflict with one another. We understand each. Each has a piece of humanity that we relate to. It’s our humanity. And it all goes toward a great story.
In your next read, or even you next movie or TV show:
1.     Identify the protagonist right off
2.     Actively observe your feelings toward him or her.
3.     Observe how the writer coaxes us to like the protagonist. (Or fails to)
4.     At what point or page are we “in”; that is, at what point or page do we finally relate?  Or not relate? 
 Adam Snow reveals who Madeleine really is.
Adam Snow reveals who
Madeleine really is.
5. Examine how your feelings toward the protagonist affect your enjoyment of the book. 
6.  And check how do your feelings change from the first page of the book through to the end. 
That’s yet another conscious step toward building a better story, writing a better book.

Thanks for reading. More Protagonist tips to come.    PG

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Tips for Fiction Writers: #6 Why the Inciting Incident is so Important

Tips for Fiction Writers: #6  Why the Inciting Incident is so Importan

Imagine this:
     Presumed Innocent
  • Your name is Rusty Sabich.
  • You’re the prosecutor for Kindle County.
  • There’s been a death.
  • It’s someone you know – a recent but past lover (yes, you’re married) has been found raped and murdered.
           (Your world is not in chaos yet –until. . .)
  • Analysis shows that it’s your semen that was found in her.
                  Yikes! Is your world now upside down? You bet. 
This is, of course, the starting point for Scott Turows great novel - Presumed Innocent.

The above scenario is what called an ‘inciting incident.’
Sometimes it’s called an “exciting incident.” Before it, there is relative peace and equilibrium in the lives of the protagonists. The inciting incident changes that. Dramatically (literally). It’s the reason for the story in the first place. The rest of the story is the protagonist solving the problem, regaining the lost equilibrium.

Repeat: The inciting incident is the reason for the story in the first place.  

Here's an inciting innocent on the first page of a book I'm currently reading.
"I saw something fall from the rear deck of the opposite ferry. I could have beena bundle of trash; it could have been a child-sized doll. Either was more likely than what I thought I say: a small human face, in one tiny frozen moment as it plummeted toward the water."
Does this paragraph get your attention? This is from Sara J. Henry's Learning to Swim.  Does the protagonist jump in to save the child?  (You'll have to read the book.)  Does it change her life completely?  (No surprise there. Yes.)

Or, take Hamlet: What is the inciting innocent?  It's when, upon the death of Hamlet’s father, his mother immediately moves to marry his father’s brother. Hamlet goes mad. His world is upside down. The rest of the play is Hamlet trying to turn his world right side up.

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Oh, and what about Joe Turner? Remember him – the Robert Redford character in 3 Days of the Condor? He goes to work one day, in a downtown Brownstone, at his usual job as a CIA reader. Fine. He has his life. He has his love interest. He has his great job where he reads things -- looking for ideas that might help the CIA. 

What can go wrong? (Your kidding, right?)
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Joe Turner goes out the back door and comes back with sandwiches for everyone in the office. But they are all dead. Massacred. His life is turned upside down. Who can he trust? (It’s the CIA after all.)  Are they really after him? What does he know that endangers him? The rest of the story is Joe Turner battling the CIA (in ingenious ways) to right the turmoil in his life. (If you haven’t read it or seen it, you’ve missed a terrific story.)

Or The Godfather. The normal equilibrium of the Corleone family is gambling, prostitution, and murder. Hard for them to have an inciting incident, yes?  But there is one – when the Godfather himself is gunned down in the street. That sets the book and the movie in motion, and the rest of the story is the family trying to save him and right their world.
Does the inciting innocent have to be violent?  No.

“If you build it, he will come.” Yikes! It turns the Iowa corn farmer into a tizzy.  What’s next? As he tries to make his dream real, the story builds and builds and builds. Neighbors reject him. His family thinks he's crazy. His farm is going into foreclosure.  But it was premised on the inciting incident --this one simple sentence, If you build it, they will come.

Oh, and the great book Grapes of Wrath. Here the inciting incident is the dust bowl during the depression. It turns the Joad family’s world upside down, forcing all of them into one car to make it to California (their own field of dreams.)

Does the inciting incident have to be negative: No

Take the terrific novel by Steven Smith - A Simple Plan.  The inciting incident is the finding of money. Lots and lots of it. Nice! Good news, yes? Not so fast. 
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The chain of events that lead from finding the money turns everyone’s world upside down.  The rest of the story consists of the characters trying to right their world so that they can survive.

Are there rules for the inciting incident? Here’s 5:
     What Happens When the CIA Gets Inside Your Mind?
  1. It should come fairly early in your story (10-15 pages), along with the development of the genre, first scene, and characters. 
  2. It pulls the main character(s) into the plot.
  3. It has to be of sufficient interest to the reader – actually hook him or her. 
  4. It has to provide enough energy to sustain the story.
  5. The inciting incident has to be satisfactorily resolved at the end of our stories.  (Of course, the ending must be a surprise, but logical. And, it must give the reader what he or she wants, but not in they way they expect it.) 
Homework: As we read our books and watch our films and TV shows, look for the inciting incident. 

  • Identify where it is placed in the story. 
  • Does it interest us? 
  • Does it pull the main character(s) into the story? 
  • Is it violent or nonviolent.
  • Do we care? 
  • Why do we care? 
  • Does it provide enough energy to launch the story?
  • Does it sustain the story through to the end.

If we study like this, we are examining other stories to see what works, and what doesn’t. It’s just one way that we become better writers.

 a love story of suspense