Tag Archives: character introduction

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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Description: Love it. Use it.

Without description, fiction becomes cold and abstract, and readers find it difficult to visualize the setting, characters, or character reactions. Nor can they bond with character emotions if those emotions aren’t described. Such problems create a sense of detachment, which makes it easy for readers to lose interest and drift away from the story.

On the other hand, description slows down story pace. Too much description can sink a story or cause readers to skip passages. If readers skip, they’re likely to miss important information. If they miss that, a few pages later they don’t understand where the story’s going. Once they stop understanding, they lose interest. Unfairly, they may declare that your characters are “stupid” or your story just doesn’t make sense.

Therefore, when dealing with description writers need to focus on three factors: utility, vividness, and position.

Utility:
Before incorporating a passage of description into your story, ask yourself what purpose is it going to serve. Is it creating a sense of place, showcasing your world building, introducing a new character, or conveying character emotions?

Sense of place:
How easy it would be if writers could just tell readers that the story is taking place in London at 4 p.m. and leave readers to supply the rest.

Screenwriters have an advantage over prose writers in this area because of the camera. Movie or television audiences can see a vista or a house or a neighborhood or a menacing robot looming from the shadows of a poorly lit alley. It’s there on the screen. No need for the writer to expend words and energy depicting it.

However, prose writers must work much harder in conveying sense of place. We don’t want to ramble on and on, because readers will grow tired and skip our lovingly crafted paragraphs. Therefore, we need to put the image across quickly, economically, and effectively.

One of the best ways to do so is through the physical senses of your viewpoint character. Don’t just rely on the visual. Does the setting have a putrid stench? Is the air extremely cold? Are factory pistons pounding away at a deafening sound level? Does the drugged coffee have a bitter taste?

Dominant impression:
Don’t throw all the sensory impressions at your readers at the same time. For any given setting, determine the most prominent detail you want to convey and focus on that. It should be a logical one in terms of what’s happening in the plot. For example, perhaps you’re writing about a home invasion where the homeowner–your protagonist–pulls a handgun from his nightstand drawer and exchanges gunfire with the individuals who have broken into his house.

In this situation, what would be the dominant impression to describe during the gunfire? That’s right: sound.

Afterward, when the situation is over, what might the dominant impression be? Probably the smell of cordite.

By utilizing a dominant physical sense, you can describe on the fly–briefly and effectively–without employing a long, rambling passage that will slow down the story’s movement.

Vividness:
Painting a word picture requires strong, specific nouns and active verbs. Avoid the flabby qualifiers of adjectives and adverbs.

The big red dog walked slowly along the sidewalk.

How large is big? Does red mean the dog is a burnished color or does the dog have red paint spilled on his coat? Is he moving slowly because he’s fat, or is he limping, or is he frightened, or is he weak, or is he lost and unsure, or is he lazy?

Do you see how vague description conveys very little? No wonder readers grow impatient with it.

A mixed-breed dog roughly the same size as a bull calf and sporting crimson splotches of glistening paint on its head and shoulders roamed along the sidewalk.

Hmm. Is this vivid or confusing? In an effort to be unusual, the writer has jammed too much information together. The images clash and crowd each other. It’s not effective.

An Irish setter–red coat gleaming like a new-minted penny–ambled along the sidewalk.

Here, the writer has used the dominant impression of color to convey the dog’s appearance. The verb “ambled” indicates movement that’s content and unhurried.

However, if the writer really wants to describe a dog that’s been in the paint, let’s try that one again.

The stray dog–its head and shoulders glistening with splotches of red paint–fled down the sidewalk, spattering drops in its wake.

Don’t you expect that animal to pause under some nice old lady’s clothesline and give itself a good shake?

Now, are some of you jumping up and down, eager to remind me that I didn’t mention the dog’s size?

If the size is more important than the spilled paint, then focus on that with dominant impression. Otherwise, let that detail wait.

Position:
Where you insert description matters to your story’s dramatic (or comedic) effectiveness.

Pause Points:
Remember that description is perceived by readers as slowing down the story action, even if momentarily. Therefore, savvy writers place small passages of description in natural pause points.

For example, a new character enters the room where other–already established–characters are talking. Everyone stops and turns to stare at the newcomer.

This is a natural pause point in the story action. Insert a paragraph of description, thus introducing the new character to readers.

Or, to return to my example of the home invasion. After the shooting is over, there’s a natural pause point as the protagonist emerges cautiously from cover, switches on the bedroom light, and stares at the shambles. The wreck of the room needs to be described to readers. Certainly the character’s emotions need description here.

Suspense Points:
However, you don’t always want to put a slow passage at a slow spot in the story’s flow.

Sometimes writers deliberately slow down their stories in order to build anticipation for a coming event or to heighten dread toward a threat that’s about to drop.

Let’s say that your protagonist has been coerced into fighting a duel at dawn. He’s not feeling confident. You want readers to worry, to anticipate the danger and action about to explode across the page once the fight starts. But you don’t want to hurry the anticipation because readers enjoy it. Well-built and well-placed anticipation draws out and intensifies story suspense, thus providing readers with more entertainment value.

Sitting in the gondola, listening to the soft chuckle of water beneath the oar, Noel cradled the rapier beneath his cloak and gazed at the narrow buildings rising up from the gray mist of dawn. The cold air stank of fish. Overhead, veins of pink and turquoise faintly marbled the sky, which was lightening from gray to pearl. The clouds were soft. Across the indigo sea, the sun climbed slowly. Its mantle of gold and coral blazed with magnificent radiance. Before it, the sea changed color, becoming turquoise curling with lacy foam. A fleet of galleys floated in silhouette upon the harbor, their sails furled, their masts at rest.

Slow? You bet! That paragraph, taken from my science fiction novel TERMINATION, is static. There’s no action other than from whoever is rowing the boat toward the assignation. Had the passage been placed in one of the story’s pause points, it would be dull reading indeed. Instead, it’s spinning out anticipation of the duel that’s about to take place. The description of a Venetian sunrise has been positioned deliberately to heighten suspense.

The greater the impending danger, the slower you can be in letting your characters approach it.

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S-T-R-E-T-C-H!

Just as people hit the gym to keep their muscles toned and singers run through scales before they practice their arias, so should writers keep their techniques supple.

Exercise #1:

Pick an area of writing that you do especially well.  Maybe you’re really adept at description, or maybe you always manage to set a hook at the end of each chapter.

Now find a couple of modern authors–preferrably still in print–that are known for their skills in that same technique.  Let’s say you’re looking at how they manage hooks.

Skim through Chosen Author’s first, best, or most famous story and see how he or she handles hooks.  Are you doing as good a job?  Set aside your ego and be honest.  If yours are not comparing well, what is Chosen Author doing that you aren’t? 

Maybe some of your hooks are actually better or more surprising.  If that’s the case, give yourself a pat on the shoulder.

Then look at whether Chosen Author is offering a variety of hooks, keeping scenes or chapters ending in unpredictable ways.

Do you have variety, or are you clinging to a couple of tried-and-true-but-weary tricks?

Now look through Chosen Author’s most recent book.  Are the techniques that initially made Chosen Author famous still in play( maybe a bit worn by now), or is Chosen Author serving up surprises?  For example, I think John Sandford writes the best scene fragments in the business, and from book to book he never quite does them the same way.  Still distinctive to the Sandford style, but always fresh.

What can you learn from this?

Exercise #2:

For the next drill, pick an area where you know you’re weak.  Let’s say you aren’t very good at introducing characters.  You’ve read useful texts on the subject, such as those by Jack Bickham, but you still can’t seem to bring people into your fiction with any verve.

Once again, go to your shelves.  Select an author whose characters you really admire or respond to.  How does that writer introduce them?  If necessary, copy a passage on your computer, print it out, and lay it side by side with a page from your manuscript.  (No, I don’t care if you have a big monitor capable of splitting the screen.  You don’t want to do this on the computer.  Print the samples out on paper, preferably with both in identical courier font.)

Compare the two, not to squelch your bruised ego further, but instead to try and find where the pins and seams are.  Think it over, then open a new document file and write your character introduction anew.  Print that out and compare it with Chosen Author’s.

Don’t expect or try to become identical.  You must keep your individual style, your voice.  The object is emulation, not imitation. 

I happen to admire John D. MacDonald’s character introductions very much.  He spends as much care making minor characters vivid as he does the major players, yet he never leaves you in doubt as to their level of importance to the story.

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