Goals

Hard to believe it’s been a month since I added a blog post. Then again, with the chaos of finals, grading, and of course the holidays, maybe it isn’t such a challenge to believe it.

As I try to get back into a ‘normal’ writing schedule, I wonder if you have any goals for this year. Are you hoping to write more, take a stab at a new genre, or just finally finish that novel? Whatever your goals, don’t let them fall by the wayside as so many resolutions do. We start off strong with great intentions and quickly discover our sights were set much too high, with unbelievably unattainable goals.

How can we change this?

My recommendation is to make SMALL changes- one at a time. Instead of trying to ‘write a novel’ or ‘write every day’- why not make it manageable? In other words, schedule an hour of writing on Tuesdays and Thursdays and once that becomes a habit, add Wednesday and Friday in too, until you can eventually have that consistent daily time in your schedule.

Starting off small means you’re still starting, not becoming overwhelmed, and most importantly, it means you’re actually committing to and making writing changes.

Now, what do you plan to do with your writing this year? Get started! Small- and slow!

Happy writing!

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Casting your story

Character is the cornerstone of any story. For me, casting my character list is a huge part of the writing and character creation process. To do so effectively means I’ll have more inspiration than I can sometimes handle when I’m writing, but this is a great way to stave off writer’s block.

So, how do you effectively cast your script? I’ll share a few tips:

Online searches

Everything from generalized descriptions like ‘blond female model’ or ‘middle-aged male athlete’ to something more specific like the name of a celebrity, model, sports figure or politician.

These searches can prove to be fruitful and may even inspire new characters or descriptions.

Magazines

It’s worth starting a file for pictures found in magazines, newspapers, or through other sources. You may need this file for inspiration later when you’re writing.

Keeping separate files for male or female leads might be wise, but I honestly just throw them all into one file and deal with them later when I’m ready to actually cast a specific piece.

Movies/ television/ news/ music industry

Any of these can offer great options for casting your characters. Surprisingly, it doesn’t limit my writing when I do this. Even if you’re a big fan of an actor or musician’s work for instance, that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to see them in the role you’re casting them in. It might even mean you are more capable of doing so because you’re familiar with their work and quirks.

And further…

You don’t need to narrow it down to the ‘one’ for each role. I often create a document where I cut and paste different pictures for the moods of each character and the situations in which they might find themselves. While I may imagine one person or picture more than the others when writing, all tend to be valuable to my process.

Think outside the box when it comes to ‘casting’ your story. There’s no need to limit yourself to only searching celebrities or even well-known entities. Any picture can be a help when writing. There isn’t a right/ wrong answer here. Whatever inspires you is what you need to write.

Go for it! Cast your story now!

Happy writing!

Writing prompt: setting

Let this picture inspire your story. What ‘what if’ question does it inspire? What characters would you place here? Who are they and what do they want?

What critical climax develops in this narrative? What keeps the characters from achieving their goals?

tunnel

Happy writing!

Writing prompt: Setting

What little slice of heaven is this? How could this setting inspire or influence your characters? What would they be doing in a place like this? Who are they? What do they want? What stands in their way? What brought them to this location?

Happy writing!sunset

If the stakes are high…. Your story will fly!

One of the ongoing problems I see in my students’ screenwriting is that the stakes simply aren’t high enough in their scripts. What I mean is, they set up a problem that—no matter the solution—will leave the hero in the same position at the end of the script regardless of whether he wins or loses.

This is a huge problem.

In order for the script to work (and really this is true of a novel and likely short story as well) the world must change dramatically if the hero wins, but it must also change dramatically if he or she loses too. Otherwise, what’s the point of the story? And your audience/ reader will see right through it.

To ensure your stakes are high enough for your hero, consider the following points:

  • The hero wants something and has shown through his or her actions that they’re willing to do anything to get it. A person who is this intense and working toward a life-altering goal is doing things he or she may never have tried before—and they’re likely exhibiting some kind of courage to do it. With that being said, how could life ever be the same again?
  • Ask yourself why the hero wants to achieve this goal. What are the solid answers to that question? Usually this centers somewhere in the realm of the hero’s view of his/ her own self-worth. This is not an issue to be taken lightly.
  • Articulate clearly before you write how the world will be different if the hero wins or loses. This might make the concept of stakes clearer and more tangible.
  • Near the end of the story the hero should have exhausted all avenues in their efforts to find success. In doing this, the world has already changed. For better or worse is up to you—but the change will be there.
  • This may be a little bit of a side-note but something else that helps me make sure the stakes are high enough is knowing how my story will end before I start writing. It’s a habit I picked up when I studied screenwriting, but I find it helps in all forms of writing in terms of character development, plot progression, and even setting the stakes. I’ll likely write a separate blog post about this in the future.

Setting the stakes can seem like a daunting task at the beginning of the process. But if you think about anything you’ve done in your life that you’re incredibly proud of or that was very difficult, and you’ll likely find the reason this was so was that there were clearly established stakes that made all the difference.

Film examples of setting the stakes – Big Fish (Edward will die before his son knows who he is, and before their relationship—they’ve been estranged for years—is healed), Bruce Almighty (Bruce is selfish and if he doesn’t change he won’t really understand what love is or how to treat others), Wall Street (Bud is bent on success, but if he finds it, he may lose his family and soul)… see how important this is? Your hero’s victory or defeat is the center of the story- but only because in that he/ she’s life is changing in dramatic, unbelievable ways.

So, what are the stakes for your hero?

Happy writing!

What if…? The writer’s perfect question

The question to end all questions- what if…? It is a writer’s treasure trove. It is how I began writing one of my recent screenplays.

I should have been paying attention the sermon in church and instead I was looking at the back of this woman in front of me and wondering if she would find love or if men would only see her as the wheelchair she sat in. My ‘what if’ question was ‘what if a woman in a wheelchair met the man least likely to see her as anything but the wheelchair?’

And thus became the start of a story that wouldn’t leave me for years. The woman became Daisy Parker, the man, Robby Grant, the screenplay, and then novel—Picking Daisy.

So how do you construct a great ‘what if’ question that will lead to a novel, screenplay, short story, or other work? In my case it boils down to a few key elements:

  • Curiosity- as writers we should be curious people. Asking ‘what if’ almost all the time about the people and things around us will provide no end of inspiration for writing
  • Engagement- although there will be times, of course, when we can’t just be thinking ‘what if…?’ otherwise, we’d get nothing done. That said, engaging with and paying attention to the world around us is essential to the successful and constant creation of ‘what if’ questions. In other, more direct words, pay attention
  • Creativity- the ‘what if’ question needn’t end after only one has been posed. Don’t hesitate to ask more than one of them until the right one that sparks your creativity strikes. Additionally, don’t let the more direct, easy answer to the ‘what if/\’ question be the only idea you embrace. Test drive a few until you find the one that fits your writing situation.
  • Answers- Answering the ‘what if’ question can be the most fun you’ll have with this experience. Once the right ‘what if’ question is formed, the real creativity begins. Your characters and scenarios will develop more easily and you’ll have fun experimenting with the many options available as answers to your questions.

The benefits of the ‘what if’ question can’t be overstated. Not only will it spark your creativity, it will also help you avoid that terrible problem of writer’s block.

So go ahead and try it. Take a look around you and ask ‘what if’ and see what happens. Comment below with any intriguing insights from your ‘what if’ experience.

Happy writing!sunset

Films that inspire writers: Stranger than Fiction

It’s not surprising that writers look for inspiration everywhere. Because of their visual nature, films can offer encouragement and insight for writers in any number of ways.

The film Stranger than Fiction is one such example of a valuable writing film. This film explores many relevant areas for writers, including writer’s block, inspiration, creativity, the writing process, and even writer’s preferences in terms of writing spaces, process, and more. While the insights presented may be a bit far-fetched (most films are so as to bow to the needs of the silver screen), they can encourage writers to try new techniques or ideas to find writing success.

In short, the film Stranger than Fiction is about a writer named Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) who is struggling through writer’s block as she seeks to decide on the perfect way to kill her protagonist, Harold Crick (Will Ferrell). This film is a great illustration of the deep waters writers have to go through to bring their characters to the page. The acting in the film is excellent, and overall the film is well worth watching.

Check it out!

What films inspire your writing?

Character creation 101: Banning ‘Magic Mike’ in favor of heroes with real drive

So I foolishly made the mistake of letting my friends talk me into going to see Magic Mike when it came out in the theaters.

It will bMagic-Mike-Movie-Postere funny, they said.

But I wasn’t laughing.

And it probably wasn’t for the reasons you might be thinking.

Sure, the plot was stupid, the action tasteless, and the humor raunchy. I’m fairly certain all of that goes without saying (and it wasn’t surprising). But what struck me more than anything else was that the film actually had a chance to make a point, but it never bothered to come close to going where it should have.

And it was a problem that—given better writing—could have easily been solved and made the film more than tolerable. It might even have been good.

So what was the problem? Where did this pinnacle of cinematic excellence (please, I’m being sarcastic) go wrong? Sadly, it’s the same place many writers lose the audience.

The problem is that a number of novelists and screenwriters falsely believe that it is enough for their heroes be one dimensional. OK- maybe they don’t set out to do this, but they get so wrapped up in the plot that they fail to recognize the important role a multi-dimensional character plays in the success of the film or novel. Writers who struggle in this area often have characters who think their readers or audience will be satisfied by a hero who is in love with the girl, wants the job, or is just plain cute.

Not so fast.

Think about it- does a man only want to ‘get the girl’ in real life? Even the most smitten man has priorities and drives beyond—or at least in addition to—finding love.

Narratives that fall into such a problem fail to develop a rich story or believable characters. In the case of ‘Magic Mike’ for instance, the chance for a great narrative was squandered in favor of following a character the audience is supposed to believe has been forced to take his clothes off for a living so that he might –someday- be able to follow his ‘real’ dream of woodworking and making furniture. This might have worked if the audience saw him even once working in his wood shop. Realistically though, to make this narrative believable, the audience would need to see, feel, and believe that without the ability to create, Mike would wither away and die.

But novelists suffer this problem too. Many writers spend ample time leading the audience to believe the hero lives magically (pun intended, we’re looking at you Mike)- and solely- on the drive to get together with the heroine of the story, failing to recognize that even the most smitten man sometimes has to go to work, engage with family or friends, or even develop hobbies, skills, or education that in no way relate directly to the woman for whom he pines.

The answer to this flat-character dilemma isn’t so simple. In my experience the only real way around it is spending time on the front end of your writing project developing the hero’s backstory. He must be fully formed (with a past full of LIFE) in order for the audience to be sympathetic to his dilemma.

So, what is it that makes your hero real?

Some great resources for answering this question exist. See the end of this post for links to some of them. But for now, here are some questions that might help:

  • What does the hero do in his spare time? Hobbies?
    • What is he an expert at?
  • What comes easily for the hero? Why?
  • What does he hate to do? What is he allergic to? What is he bad at?
  • Has the character been trained in any way (college, military, technical school)? What was this experience like for him? How does it influence him today?
  • What are his vices? Favorite things? (think Oprah- make a list!)
  • What is his family life like? With whom in his family does he interact on a regular basis?
    • Friends? What do they do together for fun?
  • Habits? (dining out, church/ ministry, clubs, etc.)
  • What goals does he have? How does he plan to achieve these goals?
    • How does the love interest support/ conflict with these goals?
  • What do the hero and heroine have in common?
    • How are they different?
  • What does the hero not want to do (but keeps doing anyway)? What is in the hero’s past that he wishes he could escape?

I could go on for days with questions such as these. In essence, if you look around at your friends, family, and colleagues, what makes them who they are? What makes them do what they do on a daily basis? While I don’t recommend pulling too much actual information from these sources, allow them to inspire you to see parallels within your characters’ lives so one dimension quickly becomes a fully-formed individual.

Once you’ve worked your way through some or all of the above questions, you will need to weave them organically into the story—let the answers influence your character and give him personality—and more to talk or pursue beyond his love interest, career, or other story goal.

Here’s a short list of some resources that might be helpful in your backstory creation. (Note: don’t be afraid to apply any or all of this information to side characters, love interests, and villains as well).

https://www.writerswrite.com/journal/jun98/how-to-create-a-character-profile-6986

http://www.miniworld.com/adnd/100ThingsAboutUrPCBackGround.html

http://inkwellideas.com/2010/09/101-questions-to-help-create-character-backgrounds-and-personalities/

http://theathleticnerd.com/screenwriting/getting-to-know-your-characters

What are some ways you make your characters more believable? How do you give characters goals and depth? Feel free to comment below. And as always, happy writing!