SPARKLE: Dramatic Flair–Part II

When incorporating flair into your stories, here are a few suggestions:

1. Be willing to take risks. (Sounds like a repeat of a previous post, doesn’t it? You betcha! I repeat points when I think they matter.)

If you’re going to be a strip-tease dancer, you have to come out on stage and at least peel off a glove.

Characters that are shrinking violets lack flair. The safe, boring, plain, mousy character that never changes will lack what it takes to carry a story to its finish.

One reason I enjoy watching DANCING WITH THE STARS is waiting to see whether some of the celebrities with two left feet are ever going to get the hang of ballroom dancing. There’s technique and footwork to learn, choreography to master, posture to improve, trust in a partner to develop, stage fright to get over … and above and beyond all of that, delivering performance flair that makes the audience cheer.

Some of the celebrities have lovely technique, but they’re shy or wooden. They never manage to sparkle, and they don’t reach their audience.

They’ve taken the risk to put themselves in the competition, but they never make it over the threshold to self-expression and performance.

Others are all sparkle and can’t discipline themselves to master technique. So the audience loves how they shimmy, but the judges loathe what they do with their footwork or posture.

2. Whatever you come up with, EXAGGERATE it. If you’ve devised a competent starship captain that always manages to bring her cargo in on time … excuse me while I yawn.

All we have so far in this example is a foundation, a list of qualities: good at job, highly skilled, responsible, and reliable. (Snore …)

How, then, do we exaggerate competent? Well, this captain is soooo good that she’s Captain Kirk good. She’s the best captain in the commercial fleet of Galactic Starlines Shipping. She’s their highest-paid officer. Every manufacturing in the colony worlds is clamoring to hire her.

Every other captain in the fleet hates her guts and is out to beat her, either fairly or through sabotage.

Now, when you’re really good at something and you know it, you don’t have to swagger and posture. You just are. So Captain Kira has nothing to prove to anybody. That gives her a certain manner, a confidence, an assuredness that many people lack.

Let’s say, though, that she goes out armed because of her many rivals and competitors–and also to protect the cargo she’s hired to carry.

So when she lands in spaceport, she crosses the terminal in her uniform, with military bearing, and alert. She’s carrying a PPK pro-load plasma pistol on her hip. It’s a non-concealed weapon, and the fact that she’s allowed by security to wear it in a crowded, intergalactic space terminal means she’s licensed and knows how to use it.

See how I’m pulling her toward the flair end of the spectrum? Exaggerating isn’t a matter of dressing her up in a purple cape and having her snarl rudely at her minions. It’s building a character up from the inside out.

When you do that, readers understand instinctively that you should test this highly competent, take-no-prisoners captain. They’ll expect you to drop some major trouble on Captain Kira and see how she handles it.

3. Increase the plot’s conflict. However much trouble you’ve cooked up, it probably isn’t enough.

I don’t mean that you should scrape up a lot of incidental problems and pitfalls that aren’t connected to the story. Remember that we want flair, not random chaos.

Instead, look at the characters you’ve designed and exaggerated. What makes them tick? If you were in their situation, how would you react? What exactly would you do? Would you ever, in a thousand years, do or say what you’re assigning to them? Why or why not?

And whatever they’re involved in, how can the villain make things worse for them?

4. Try to inject some humor. One of the endearing aspects of the television character Rick Castle is his boyishness, his delight in little details of the case he’s working on, his enthusiasm, his imagination and creativity, and his willingness to play. Such qualities bring sparkle to the show to offset what would otherwise be very grim crimes.

The silly, delightful fairy tale film, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, is bristling with flair. There’s danger, exaggeration, swashbuckling, pathos, and a great deal of comedy deftly mixed together. In the scene where Wesley has to choose which chalice contains the poison, the situation itself is a serious one. The bad guy holds a knife at Buttercup’s throat. If Wesley refuses to participate, she will die. If he chooses the wrong chalice, he will swallow poison. Anticipation is built during the banter between Wesley and the bad guy. More anticipation is built with the absurd little tricks they play on each other in order to switch the cups. And even the twist is comedic.

5. Throw in the unexpected. Sure, you need to design your characters and plan your plot. You need to consider how best to construct plot twists for the key turning points of a novel. You should outline and consider how you can make the story better and stronger and more compelling.

But don’t be afraid to pitch something completely out of left field into the story now and then, just to keep it going.

I learned how to do this early on in my writing career, back before I had much skill at plotting. My outlining abilities were poor. I knew my protagonist’s goal. I knew enough to set up a villain in opposition to that goal. I knew how to write scenes of conflict. Beyond that … I was weak!

Often, in those early writing projects, I just cooked up some cliff-hanger on the spur of the moment–using anything that came to me as a hook so I could close the chapter and go eat dinner.

Then, if my wild turn of events actually worked, I would backtrack to an earlier portion of the manuscript and plant a few details to make the event plausible.

When I was writing the story that eventually became my first published book, I got stuck in the middle. I knew how the story would end, but I was bogged down and couldn’t seem to get there. I needed something to happen, but my hero and heroine were just going on a picnic. Nowadays, I recognize this as an obligatory element in romance fiction called “getting-to-know-you time.” Then, I felt like my plot had stalled, and I was fighting off impending panic.

While I was moaning about this, a friend said, “Why don’t you have the girl discover a dead rat in the picnic basket?”

In the abstract, what an absurd suggestion! It was so left-field it was crazy. Yet I was desperate enough to do it.

Yes, I had to scramble a lot to make the setup for that rat plausible. I was forced to really think through what possible motivation a character could have for doing such a nasty thing to my heroine.

That thinking and plotting was good for me. It forced me to be creative and grow as a young writer. In using a zany, unpredictable development, I was able to think beyond the box I’d wedged myself into. I improved my skills as a result.

It also gave my heroine a jolly good reason for wigging out and bursting into tears, which gave the hero the perfect opportunity to take her in his arms.

The

Plot

Advanced.

In going for flair, loosen up. Relax and set the wild and wacky notions in your imagination free once in a while. They might surprise you. Better still, they might surprise your readers.

Study the classic films made under the studio system and observe how the major movie stars dominated the screen or stole scenes from other actors on the set. Look at what they’re doing and how they were doing it in the days before method acting took over.

Borrow and adapt. See what you come up with.

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