Tag Archives: Agatha Christie

Story Genius: Agatha Christie and Billy Wilder

As many of you know, I’m a rabid old-movie buff. This week was exciting because I showed my students a 1957 courtroom thriller called WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. Based on a play by Agatha Christie, the idea was subsequently translated to the screen by genius writer/director/producer Billy Wilder. Christie supplied the plot and the dynamite twists; Wilder fleshed out her characters. (I think I read somewhere that Christie was paid about $450,000 for the film rights. Not bad in 1950s-era money! Even today’s money would do.)

Over the years, whenever I have coached students wanting to write a courtroom drama, nine times out of ten they make the same mistake:  they establish the defendant as their protagonist. In theory, this should work. After all, the protagonist is supposed to have the most at stake and be at the heart of the story.

Well, the defendant has the most at stake, but otherwise is stuck passively in a jail cell, unable to drive the story action. Therefore, the defendant can not be an effective protagonist.

In WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, the protagonist is Sir Wilfrid, an experienced and wily defense barrister considered to be the best in the Old Bailey, but he is recovering from a serious heart attack and his health remains uncertain. His doctors have forbidden him to conduct any more defense trials, yet he cannot resist taking on the case of Leonard Vole who has been accused of murder on circumstantial evidence.

Wilder, directing the film, is smart enough to take his time. We don’t meet the accused, Vole, right away. Instead, Sir Wilfrid is introduced first and shown pitted against his nurse who is determined to make him follow doctor’s orders to take it easy, get plenty of rest, and avoid cigars and brandy. Their conflict starts in the first movie frame and continues to arc over the entire duration of the movie. And that arc about whether Sir Wilfrid will achieve his goal of resuming his trial career is the spine of the story. The primary subplot centers on the trial itself and attempts to gather sufficient evidence to exonerate Sir Wilfrid’s client. And although the trial is gripping–not to mention twisty, thanks to the devious imagination of Dame Agatha–it is the characters that make this film stand out.

Therefore, it is these characters that I use as classroom examples of design, introduction, and revelation of true nature. They have vivid and distinctive entry actions, usually in plot conflict or in dramatic contradiction to audience expectation. They wave numerous distinctive tags–e.g. the nurse Miss Plimsoll in her uniform, carrying her small medical bag, wielding her syringe for Sir Wilfrid’s calcium injections; and Sir Wilfrid’s monocle, his wig, his thermos of coco, his pills, and his cigars. Each of them with possibly the exception of the murder victim is designed with complexity. True nature is revealed and concealed in various ways. At first we think of Sir Wilfrid as a sick old man long past his prime, even a bit of a mischievous buffoon who is rude and unnecessarily gruff, but then we learn how intelligent, how clever, how determined to save his client, how wily, and how caring he is. The characters’ clashing goals and motivations bring all of them to life.

Although several characters are introduced through characteristic entry action, some are brought in differently. One such alternative method is through discussion, whereby two characters are talking about a third character about to appear in the story for the first time. The introduction of the defendant’s wife is done through character discussion. Sir Wilfrid, before meeting her, makes an assumption about her that proves to be entirely erroneous the moment she first appears. His mistake emphasizes our dominant impression of her vividly and unforgettably.

The mystery clues are planted through dialogue and character behavior. In watching the film for the first time, you sense something is off and yet you find yourself doubting your judgment. Is it the actor’s performance? Is the character lying? What’s wrong? As Sir Wilfrid says in frustration, “It’s too symmetrical. Something is wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it!”

I love how the plot is put together. There is comedy and broad exaggeration. There is audience manipulation. There is the buildup of anticipation and the creation of suspense. The two ticking clocks–Sir Wilfrid’s worsening health and the trial’s verdict–keep your attention hooked to the finale. Even the flashback–always a risk to pacing–works beautifully in planting more clues and pointing to motivations.

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this film. I don’t care, because every time I am struck anew with how well-written it is, how well-plotted and paced it is, how well-acted it is, and how well-directed it is without any reliance on fancy-schmancy special effects. The sets are limited and very tight–reflecting its origins as a play. I’ve read a modern-day review that pokes a hole in the storyline, criticizing it for allowing Vole to exclaim and interrupt during the trial, but I don’t know enough about British courtroom procedures in the 1950s to understand if this is a valid criticism or not. All I perceive as a writer is that Vole’s comments serve a specific plot purpose, and from that restricted perspective they work.

Beyond my enjoyment of the movie’s skillfully employed techniques, I love the reactions of my students. At first they’re delighted to watch a movie in class instead of sitting through a dull lecture. But then they realize it’s an old movie. Even worse, it’s in black and white. They’ve never heard of any of the actors–Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Elsa Lanchester–and the cars are weird, the clothes are weird, the setting is a London from an era they don’t recognize so it’s also weird. I watch them stiffen in their seats, rolling their eyes and sighing a little. The movie starts with the comedic bit they find cheesy. I can feel them wishing they could ditch class and check their text messages. I know they’re wondering how long this torture will take.

(This time, one brash young man actually asked me if we were going to watch the whole movie. “Yes,” I replied firmly. “You have to stay with it to the end.”)

And then, as always, there comes that moment when I sense a change in the room. The silent intensity in the class tells me they’re absorbed. I know the movie has grabbed my young students by their throats. They are captured by the story question. They want to know what will happen and how it will turn out. And that capture has nothing to do with technicolor, a soaring soundtrack, special effects, wild stunts, exploding buildings, or CGI. It has everything to do with plot and characters–with story.

And that is what writing should be about.

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Escaping Oz

Creative and imaginative idea + skill and training = published writer.

Although not easy to achieve, this equation is simple. So why are there so many frustrated, baffled, intimidated novice writers out there who can’t get their creative and imaginative ideas on the page? Could it be that far too often, they are never taught the basic skills that craft a story?

When it comes to teaching fiction writing, I divide instructors into two camps:  those I call the wizards of Oz and those that actually understand and share with their students the mechanics of the writing craft. The latter are terrific, and congratulations to any student lucky enough to find them.

However, today  let’s consider the wizards and the harm they do to writing newbies that trust them for guidance that’s never imparted.

The wizards play a smoke-and-mirrors game of shrouding fiction writing in a veil of mystery, as though it is some obscure, barely understood rite attended by the handmaidens Vagueness and Opacity. Their classes may be muddled emotion-fests (“Roberta, why don’t you share with us what you felt as Ambrose read his story?”) or they offer exercises in elitism and the so-called critical reading that focuses on  works written only to be critically read. In either case, they are shams.

In the 1939 MGM film, THE WIZARD OF OZ, there is a huge buildup about the Great Oz before the protagonist ever encounters him. He is represented as the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful wizard. When Dorothy finally gains audience with him, great puffs of purple smoke float across the projected features of the Great Oz. His booming voice is stern and scary, thundering at her to forget her goal of returning home to Kansas. But once the green draperies are pulled aside, he turns out to be a con man operating levers on a smoke machine. He’s refused her request, not because he’s so mighty and majestic she’s beneath his notice, but because he really doesn’t know how to help her. He’s not intimidating or powerful. Nor does he possess magical abilities. And because he lacks these qualities, he’s puffed himself into a mysterious and awe-inspiring entity while hoping no one will ever guess the truth–which is there’s nothing to him at all.

Too many writing programs at all levels in American public education are taught by wizards practicing what I call the Oz Factor. Teachers toss a published story at students much as a zookeeper chucks a raw piece of roast at a tiger. The students read it. They discuss it. The teacher rhapsodizes over it. Some students appreciate it. Some don’t. Then the teacher says, “Now that you’ve seen good writing, create a story of your own.”

What? Hold on a moment!

Would you expect a neophyte surgical student to watch an operation and then be told to “try it” on the next patient? Is a hair stylist trained to cut hair by looking at a fashion model? Is a naval pilot taught to fly a multi-million-dollar jet by playing a video game? Do we learn how to write a novel by observing an author at work every day for several weeks?

No. No. No. No.

The teacher of my example is probably sincere in her desire to introduce her students to writing. She has shared a fine piece of literature with her class. But sharing isn’t enough. She may feel frustrated when the majority of her class fails to write anything worthwhile for their assignment. She may wonder why the youth of today have so little to express.

The fact is, young writers have plenty to say but are hindered through a lack of tools by which to express their ideas.

If a teacher fails to provide clarity of instruction in the writing craft or doesn’t know how a story works on the principles that underlie plot progression or how a story is built from start to finish, how can she convey anything useful to her class?

From a student’s perspective, there is often bewilderment and frustration generated by not knowing what the teacher wants.

(Just because you pop the hood on a Chevy Corvette and show students its engine, that doesn’t mean any of them has the least comprehension of how to change its oil.)

Those who really know how a story is written can explain it. Those who don’t, can’t. And when someone can’t explain it, then the Oz Factor usually comes into play. Recently a teaching colleague of mine who is not a novelist forwarded a taped interview to me. It featured an obscure short-story author describing how an idea grows in his mind before it morphs to the page as though in a dream. If that works for him, terrific, but it doesn’t explain anything to anyone else, does it? And after all, idea generation isn’t what most students need to know anyway. They need to know how to turn their ideas into viably plotted tales.

Utilizing a monkey-see, monkey-do method instead of teaching nuts-and-bolts craft is a bogus approach–however well-intentioned–to writing instruction.

My experience with young writers is that they often feel their writing instructor is all-seeing and all-knowing, but that this knowledge of writing is hoarded or that their teacher possesses special skills but chooses not to share them. Writing is therefore perceived as an ability granted only to a special few members of the inner circle. These are the elite participants in class, the ones the teacher favors. Once again, the Oz Factor is at work. Some writing wizard has snowed these inexperienced acolytes, taken their tuition money in exchange for a diploma, and promised them knowledge they never acquire. And sadly, sometimes the more prestigious the writing program, the thicker the snow job.

Consider the 1987 comedy film, THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN, in which Billy Crystal plays a writing teacher. Yes, there is comedic exaggeration in the movie, but his method of teaching illustrates the fakery I’m discussing in this post. He tells his class, “A writer writes!”

When I watch the classroom scenes, I’m reminded of another movie, 1962’s THE MUSIC MAN, where the con man Professor Hill introduces the “think method” to the band members, assuring them that if they think long enough about the tune he’s assigned they’ll be able to play it. In the film’s happy ending, the “think method” works just enough to save Hill from being tarred and feathered.

But in THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN, what caliber of writing is submitted by Billy Crystal’s students? Dreck.

As a teacher, he’s frustrated with his students and struggles visibly to be courteous. He gives blatantly false praise, and he ditches class at every opportunity. Yet what has he actually taught them? Nothing. The only student he ever shares any writing craft with is Owen, and then only because Owen stalks and pesters him for knowledge. And because he inadvertently teaches Owen–much in the way he might toss a stick into the shrubbery to distract a rambunctious puppy from bothering him–Owen eventually writes a viable plot that’s published.

When wizards of Oz assign students to write a story, they–like Billy Crystal’s character–offer no nuts and bolts instruction of how to do so. Instead, like him, they say in effect, “Just do it. If you’re talented, then you can write. If you can’t write, then you aren’t talented.”

Students that manage to scrawl some kind of loose narrative in such classes are praised. Maybe they’re invited to read their effort to the rest of the class. And although their story may be contrived, ludicrous, or fail to reach a cathartic climax, they’ve written! Behold the effort. Ignore the result.

All the while, a far more talented student may be scrunched down in the back of the class, her mind teeming with a fantastic story world and dynamic characters, yet she’s blocked from writing because she can’t bridge the chasm between her mind and the page. There must be some way to move her characters to the next plot event, but how? If she asks the teacher–a wizard will brush her off, saying, “You haven’t read enough. Go look at James Joyce. Or pay more attention to what your peers are doing.”

Adding to the student’s confusion are the rambling scribbles of classmates praised for writing what her story sense tells her is poorly plotted. If she dares disagree or asks too many questions about construction specifics, she’s likely to encounter the elitist blockade of the Oz Factor. If she probes too deeply into what the teacher doesn’t know–thereby jeopardizing the Oz mask–this student will be told she just doesn’t understand and should consider doing something besides write.

Of course she doesn’t understand the puffery and obfuscation of what should be a clear, easy-to-grasp process of conveying exciting, reader-engrossing story. The writing principles that make a plot flow, that keep readers turning pages, that generate excitement and emotion in readers, have been in play since antiquity. They are simple and clear. They are proven. Sophocles understood them. Shakespeare understood them. Agatha Christie understood them.

But not all so-called writing instructors understand them.

In praising or rewarding weak writing that may be stylish, witty, pretty, or profane–while offering next to no plot–and in ignoring dynamic storylines that wobble but could roll if given correct guidance, these wizards perpetuate a phony pseudo-fiction that doesn’t come close to a soundly plotted genre story and satisfies only the elitist audience contrived for it.

Such a closed, isolated system leads eventually to extinction.

Civilization, however, needs good stories. It is through the art of the story that we share experiences and emotions. It is how we bond. It is how we realize truths. It is how we vicariously survive almost-insurmountable tests and emerge victorious. It is how we play and make believe. It is how we cheer and boo and gasp and live our dreams. It is how we discover what it means to be human–both flawed and wonderful. In these ways, stories serve our society.

Fakery and style alone cannot feed our psyches the way well-constructed stories can. Muddle teaches nothing, and when nothing is taught stories falter.

I consider Toto to be the real hero in THE WIZARD OF OZ. While the other characters are milling around and falling for the great con, Toto just pulls the curtains away and reveals the truth. That is when Dorothy’s dilemma and all the other issues are finally sorted out.

Truth, honesty, and clarity should support learning the craft of writing. Writing teachers have a responsibility to part the veil, end the mystery, and step past the purple smoke. They should draw back the curtains and show their students that scene construction is a clear, easy-to-follow process, that the judicious placement of hooks keeps readers engaged and turning pages, that characters can be introduced in myriad ways with myriad effects, that solid plots need villains, and that stories should build to a conclusive, emotionally cathartic climax built around story principles even the ancient Greeks used to pack theater seats.

As one of my students has said, “Showing the process behind things doesn’t reduce the value of the end product.”

Beware any teacher that proclaims writing can’t be taught. Writing skills certainly can, and should be.

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Atmospheric Pressure

In my previous post, I discussed how the appropriate atmosphere can enhance a story and connect readers emotionally to your story.

But mood has another purpose besides contributing to the setting, and that’s in making things harder for your characters.

The best, most effective use of atmosphere is when it’s laced through the story and contributes actively to the plot. A simple example can be drawn from almost any Dean Koontz thriller, where he will use weather to heighten difficulties for his protagonist. Often he will have his characters discussing the story problem or planning a difficult course of action fraught with potential risk while outside a colossal storm is raging. In a Koontz story, it’s never a mild patter of raindrops on the window glass. Instead, it’s nearly gale force, with the wind howling and gusting, torrents of rain pouring down so that visibility is poor, and lightning crashing violently. It makes readers worry about the characters more because solving their story problem is going to be severely hampered by the intense weather.

In the Koontz novel, SERVANTS OF TWILIGHT, the heroine, her child, and her friend are trying to flee the villains in a prolonged chase. They’re traveling on foot cross country in deep snow. The tall drifts and the cold take their toll physically on the protagonist, making readers worry more about whether she can survive and save her child’s life.

Beyond these simple applications of using weather as both a mood-setter and a physical hindrance, a far more subtle example of atmosphere used as pressure can be found in Agatha Christie’s superb novel, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE.

In this story, a group of ten individuals is tricked into spending the weekend on a remote, isolated island accessible only by boat. One by one, the guests are dropped off. They are surprised to find their host is absent. Other than a pair of servants to serve them dinner, they’re alone on the island, unable to leave until the boat returns. The house is a rambling, gloomy place full of awkward passages. The beach is bleak. There’s no phone service or TV, and even electricity is iffy at times, supplied by a generator. Dinner is so-so, and it’s not exactly a hospitable place. Then the guests–none of whom know each other–start to be murdered systematically, one by one. As their fear and mutual distrust grow, the atmosphere of this grim setting adds to the pressure. They’re trapped, with nowhere to go and nowhere to turn. And their desperation contributes to the dark, edgy mood even more.

When you’re creating ambiance, ask yourself if
1) it fits the genre of your story;

2) it’s in contrast to your protagonist’s expectations (for example, the guests in the Christie story arrive happy, expecting to have a fun weekend);

3) it can contribute toward making the story problem harder to solve.

Put it to work for you in crafting a stronger, more compelling story.

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Digging Holes

The cool spring weather of last week had me busy planting roses, pulling weeds, chopping down overgrown shrubs, doing battle with a briar overtaking my backyard flowerbed, and shifting daylilies and iris to new locations. I haven’t dug any holes in a year. It was last Memorial Day weekend when I injured my back and was ordered to move as little as possible for most of Summer 2013.

Yet finally, improved health and this lovely spring weather (so rare here on the prairie) have combined to rekindle my love of gardening.

While I was cautiously digging holes–tentatively at first, then with increased confidence–something wonderful happened. Hot and snagged by established, overgrown roses, I dug to the correct depth and width for nursery-potted rosebushes. I was slow and out of practice. Strapped in a back-brace, I was afraid I would undo months of slow-mending, yet everything held together. And during this slow, steady physical labor, I reconnected with the special mind-zone that’s generated by doing mundane chores.

Why are simple, repetitive tasks so conducive to creativity? Why does digging a hole or raking leaves or sweeping floors unchain our imaginations?

No doubt the psychologists have fancy terms for this effect. All I know is that it works.

When I was in high school–dreaming every day of becoming a published novelist–I would be roused early by my father and sent outdoors to exercise my horse. An empty lot adjacent to our house provided me with space enough to ride in a large circle–roughly the size of a small horse-show arena. Because I competed with my horse–strictly in a small, local show circuit–it was necessary to put him through his gaits and keep him in training. And while I loved to ride, it was boring going around and around that circle.

Yet my mind was free to roam as far as my imagination would take me. I plotted many stories during those morning rides. I plotted more stories while I folded laundry or scrubbed out the bathtub or groomed my horse or mucked out his stall.

There’s a famous quote from Agatha Christie about how the best time to plot stories is while doing the dishes. I’ve done that, too, in the days when my house lacked a dishwasher.

In our busy modern lives, however, we lack enough boredom–the kind that supports plotting and designing characters. There’s so much to do now. Such a barrage of multi-tasking, decisions, social media, and work responsibilities … so many types of entertainment–often inside our phones for the easiest, most convenient availability.

Tell me, when you’re sitting at your mechanic’s, waiting for an oil change, can you leave your phone in your pocket? My car dealership is so fancy that it features several huge televisions, a café, and a gift shop to keep customers happy while waiting. But if I watch Judge Judy or Rachel Ray, when can I think about my book?

As writers, we need to guard against watching TV on our phones or surfing through hundreds of channels on cable when we have nothing else to do. I’m not opposed to either of those forms of entertainment. I’m just saying that as writers, we need to be bored … and often.

Otherwise, when are we going to devise that next plot twist or mull over a scene we just finished typing? When do we have those windows of time where nothing is really happening?

We need that space, those spans of nothing going on, so that our characters can speak and dance and argue, sending us running to our keyboards to write.

I’m no dazzling housekeeper, and while I love to plant flowers I loathe weeding. I hire a man to mow my grass these days, and I dream often of hiring a cleaning service.

Yet, if I acquire such luxuries, or even if I rely on a Roomba to whisper along my floors, when will I plot?

At the keyboard, you may suggest.

No! Not then. The keyboard represents writing time, precious time that should be spent writing what’s already been planned out mentally.

And if I have to buy eleven new rose bushes just to dig enough holes to work out my new plotline, then it’s money well spent.

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The Washing of Trash

Writers, by inclination and design, are curious creatures. We like to poke our noses into many things, all by reason of “I can use that in a book someday!”

Yes, it’s useful to wander down many crooked little trails leading to some serendipitous destination. It’s useful to encounter discoveries, new technologies, unusual settings, odd cultures, etc.

But writers also need processing time. We have to sort, filter, reject, and masticate. We need opportunity, calm, and a wide pool of no-more-input on occasion. There’s a reason the wise writers of the past crept off to sit by ponds or to write in the little hut in the backyard or to live a hermit’s life for part of the year.

Non-writers may happily buzz about their busy lives, shrugging off whatever overwhelms them. It’s not so easy for a writer to shrug anything off.

I’m angry about what transpired today at my cell phone provider store. I’m angry because I wanted to install a free app, but to do so necessitated purchasing a $15 iTunes gift card. It’s a racket. I feel cheated, infringed on, and taken advantage of.

Most people wouldn’t care. But I do. I’m artistic, creative, dramatic, and prone to overreaction. I’ve never been content to be a drone or a lemming that does what it’s told and happily jumps off the cliff because it’s there. Just knowing that many people enjoy eating kale makes me want to run in the opposite direction and eat cake.

How will I use today’s experience in fiction? It will probably filter into some story with themes of deceit and betrayal. Still, it’s cold comfort at the moment.

Recently my community expanded its curbside recycling program, with the result that my to-be-recycled trash now exceeds my destined-for-the-landfill trash. I’m cool with that. However, I now spend time prepping the recyclables. I’m washing yogurt cups and pickle jars so they can be thrown away. How much potable water is being wasted on cleaning the trash?

While I could live atop a stinky landfill, if forced to it, I can’t survive without drinking water.

It’s hard to process such niggling worries. I stand at my kitchen sink and remind myself that Agatha Christie liked to work out her mystery plots while she did the dishes. Can I plot while I’m rinsing off garbage?

So far, it’s not working for me. Instead of persuading my inner writer to start dictating … “Irmentrude picked up the last yogurt cup to be washed. It wasn’t her husband’s brand or flavor. She knew then–with a stabbing pain in her heart–that he’d been unfaithful. Once again, he’d brought infidelity into their home, sharing the intimacy of the marital refrigerator with some hussy.

Nope. I can’t get that story to flow.

Instead, I keep thinking about waste. Waste of water. Waste of unnecessary packaging. Waste of time. Waste of serenity because I’m living in an age of information overload, and there’s never time to process anything the way my artistic nature seeks to.

Do I stifle my inner artist? Nope.

Do I retrain my inner artist? Absolutely not!

Do I rebel a little and stop washing trash? Maybe.

Even better, do I figure out a way to retreat to Walden’s Pond, some quiet landscape where I can tune out, drop out, turn off, shut down, and otherwise silence the chattering beast of too much everything?

I need nothing more raucous than the song of crickets for a while. No more distractions of greedy computer companies, obstreperous insurance companies, demanding bosses, meetings, hard-to-please editors, and software updates. At least not for a little while. (Yes, folks. I know that what I need is called a vacation.)

Right now, I have an idea in my head that needs me to listen to it, to give it a chance. Just as when you’re building a fire, there’s that delicate moment when the spark is poised between going out and swelling into flame. Mishandle it, and it’s gone forever.

So, too, are story ideas. Defer them and ignore them long enough and they fade away. There will be others, of course, but sometimes you have to regret the one that died.

A month ago, a cool idea of mine faded from too much deferment. I’m too busy to develop it. Yes, I bought a notebook for it. I invited it to grow, sort of, but then I never found the actual time to sit down and mull over the characters.

It’s not dead, but it’s become pale and uninteresting.

Today’s idea is most intriguing, but I shan’t get around to it this afternoon. The phone debacle took too big of a chunk from my day. Now I have other responsibilities. I’m already telling my inner writer: just wait a while; maybe we’ll sit down together at bedtime and jot down the character names.

Inner writer knows differently. It’s not fooled. It will wait, like the child at the window who gazes across the street at the birthday party he wasn’t invited to, but after the trash of the day is washed and I’m ready to lay down my weary head, there probably won’t be any chance to breathe life onto this tiny spark of an idea.

When I began my career, I learned quickly that the world did not pause or make room for writers. But it was possible for a writer to push the world aside and establish quiet places and little rooms of solitude where thinking and writing could be done.

Now, I can’t push the world aside. I must do battle to force it back. And sometimes the battle is so fierce I’m too worn to make use of my victory.

Once I’m done sulking today and in a better mood, I’ll be less pessimistic. I’ll pick up my new notebook, and I’ll name these wisps of characters and put flesh on them and give them a setting and figure out what they want as goals so I can start building a plot.

It won’t be as bad as I’m making it today. It never is.

(Provided I can stop washing trash at the expense of writing.)

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Don’t Warm Up

How do you launch your story?

Do you think it begins with the first word you write on page one?

Do you think it begins when the protagonist is thoroughly introduced to readers?

Do you think it begins when trouble appears, cloudlike, on the protagonist’s horizon?

Or, do you just start typing and hope for the best?

Many years ago, when I was a teenager in Driver’s Ed., my driving instructor tried to teach us to merge and turn our vehicles more assertively by saying, “Hit that car! Try to hit that car! Move!”

I don’t think it was an effective way to teach tentative teens. I understood what he was trying to do to us psychologically, but the concept of intentional collision so alarmed me that I tended to freeze up rather than mash down the accelerator.

Now, as I teach my students how to get their stories moving, I experience frustration similar to what my driving instructor must have gone through.

Start the story on page one!

Make your words count. Make your character introduction count. Get something happening that is pertinent to the plot and start advancing it.

Know what your protagonist wants on page one!

Most writers dawdle in the opening when they haven’t a clue of what their main character’s goal is. You can’t arrive if you don’t know where you’re going.

Make sure your protagonist is in trouble on page one!

What are you waiting for? An invitation? Student writers meet with me all the time to justify why nothing is happening, storywise, for the first eleven pages. “There’s all this background the reader needs to understand.”

Readers don’t need to understand anything except what’s happening right now!

In other words, when I pick up a book to read, I don’t care how the protagonist came to be trapped in a dead-end canyon with hostile mutants closing in. I just want to see if the protagonist is going to find a weapon and survive the encounter.

The back story can be explained later. Much later. Opening with an info dump means Wally Writer is infatuated with his little story world but hasn’t gotten around yet to plotting. Readers seldom have patience to wait while Wally pulls his act together.

It’s like asking readers to read a rough draft instead of the polished version.

Bring in an antagonist fast.

“Oh no!” my student writer protests. “I want the reveal to be a surprise later.”

My response is usually, “Why?”

What are readers to do in the meantime, waiting for the big plot twist? Probably they’re going to read someone else like Dick Francis, or John D. MacDonald, or Agatha Christie, or Robert Crais.

I’m not saying that you mustn’t conceal some shadowy villains from being identified, but they need to be present. (Even J.K. Rowling injects Voldemort early on.)

Story trouble and conflict need to come from a source. They don’t just drop from the sky as random bad luck. The quicker an opponent appears–say, no later than page two–the quicker your story will get on track . . . and stay there.

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What Is There to Say?

What kind of dialogue are you assigning to your characters?

The snappy kind that zings back and forth?

The erudite, intellectual kind that calls forth rolling periods of rhetoric?

The mundane chat of reality?

Maybe you’re using a combination of the three, depending on the design of your characters.

Or possibly you aren’t sure what to do with dialogue–let alone how to punctuate it–so you’re relying instead on narrative and description to carry your tale forward.

Commercial fiction–the kind that I write–relies heavily on dialogue between characters. I was trained to set up fiction scenes to be a combination of dramatic action and dialogue. Doing so allows the story to advance and keeps the pacing quick.

An important thing to remember about dialogue is that it’s in the story to either display character personality, share reaction from a non-viewpoint character, or heighten the conflict. Any of those three purposes results in story advancement.

The worst kind of dialogue is aimless chatter between two characters in agreement, where they say nothing but social amenities. I can get that drivel at any time in real life. I want my fiction to be heading somewhere to deal with something that matters!

It helps if you have what is known as an “ear” for dialogue. Are you born with that talent? Maybe. Can you develop that skill? Sure you can.

How?

Listen to the best dialogue in the best films. Shut your eyes in front of your television and just listen. Don’t watch. (Ideally you should view the movie in its entirety first before you try this exercise.) What makes sense? What doesn’t? Start the track over and listen again.

This kind of listening exercise is hindered a bit by actor voice inflection and the soundtrack, but you can overcome such distractions.

It’s helpful if you can read the script as you listen.

Pick the films carefully. I recommend the classic movies–the old b/w ones–because many of them featured such strong writing. Screwball comedies such as Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday were pioneers of certain types of dialogue. I believe His Girl Friday is the first film to allow characters to talk over each other. Bringing Up Baby pushed the speed of delivery.

Another, possibly less famous, film is Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three. It was the movie that drove James Cagney into retirement. One of the scenes requires Cagney’s character to speak extremely rapidly as he issues orders to solve the mess he’s in. Take after take forced Cagney to talk faster and faster, until he was exhausted. The effect onscreen is hilarious.

Any Billy Wilder film is going to feature superb dialogue. Another master is Preston Sturges. I’m sure you can think of an entire string of favorite movies that you admire.

Beyond listening, you should also develop your “ear” by reading good dialogue in novels. If you’re going to write prose, you have to focus on that medium and observe how writers get inflections and tone of voice across with words alone.

A great deal of it has to do with the character’s vocabulary. Other factors include the rhythm of the sentences, their cadence. Are they clipped and staccato? Are they drawling, slow, and loquacious?

Compare the varying speech patterns among the cast of Key Largo. Again, part of this has to do with the actors, but you can adapt those rhythms to your own passages.

Look at the stripped dialogue of a writer like James Cain. It’s as naked as a bare wire suspending a light bulb from the ceiling. It gets the story across in a raw, almost brutal kind of way.

Maybe you’re writing a romantic story instead. How tenderly, then, can your characters converse with each other?

Or, if you’re into urban fantasy, can your characters achieve the snarky sarcasm of a Jim Butcher protagonist?

Enjoy mysteries? Agatha Christie’s stories are almost entirely dialogue.

To quote one of the best movie lines ever (in Singing in the Rain when Lena Lamont proclaims in her varnish-stripping voice): “Well, of course we talk! Don’t everybody?”

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