Monday, 23 February 2015

Tricks of the Trade 3: Electric Writing

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Orson Welles once told an interviewer that he considered the greatest screen actor of all time to be Jimmy Cagney. The reason he gave for this was that Cagney always played at the top of his range but was never fake or over-the-top. 

The effect of this full-on style of acting was magnetic. When somebody is pouring their all into what they’re doing, you can’t help but watch. Most actors can do this when the script requires. Cagney could do it all the time. Love scene, death scene, action scene.

It doesn’t matter how big you go if you can make it feel real. And because the audience believes the actor cares, they care. 

When it comes to writing fiction you can use a similar approach to keep the reader engaged with what’s happening in the story.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Don’t Show, Don’t Tell

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Generally speaking showing is considered a better type of writing than telling, but there are times when neither feels quite right. Fortunately there are a couple of techniques that use neither approach.

Telling is something like “John felt sad” and has the advantage of being short and quick, but it tends to lack emotional engagement. You know what the writer means, you understand the character’s experience, but you don’t necessarily feel it too.

Showing might be something like “John let out a barely audible sigh and a single tear rolled down his cheek” which lets you see what’s happening rather than being told. This, when done right (unlike my horrible example), enables the reader to feel more present and empathetic with the character, but it can take up a lot more space.

But what if you want to create an immediate and visceral effect for the reader without taking up too much room?

Monday, 9 February 2015

Tertiary Characters Have Their Own Issues

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In the last post I talked about contentious issues and how they can be used to grab a reader’s attention. But sometimes issues can sneak into a story without the writer being aware of them, and in a way that can reflect very badly on the story and on the writer.

The main character is usually well defined, as are the core set of supporting characters, but there are a whole host of other smaller parts, from the neighbour with the occasional line of dialogue to the girl at the coffee shop who never says a word, that populate a fictional world and give it a life beyond the two or three people that really matter to the story.

And it is these small, seemingly insignificant roles, that can lead readers to infer things about the writer’s view of the world that the writer never intended and doesn’t think.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Writing Issues

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Often the most engaging stories, the most affecting stories, are those that involve contentious issues.

War, sex, religion, race—highly emotive subject-matter that people tend to have strong views about are a quick way to draw a reader in. You don’t have to worry whether people will be interested in your story’s themes, because everyone’s interested in these sorts of themes.

At least, that’s how it seems. 

In practice, while it’s easy to catch a reader’s attention with a topic that they already have strong feelings about, it can be a lot harder to maintain and build on that interest through the 300+ pages of a novel. And even harder to follow through with a satisfying ending.
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