Tag Archives: dramatic flair

Bring ‘Em On!

It’s one thing to spend time thinking about your cast of characters–especially your primary roles of protagonist and antagonist. You design them. You add nuance and dimension to their personalities. You give them flaws and virtues. You choose their eye color, whether they have any distinguishing birthmarks, and how tall they are. You give them limps and quirks. You decide one will possess superpowers. You make another a mutant outcast. You cook up backgrounds, nefarious pasts, abused childhoods, prison sentences, or stints serving as a mercenary in Africa. You choose who is redeemable and who will fall into the pit of destruction.

Yes, spending time on character design is tremendous fun. But once you’ve done all that, plus assigned each cast member a dominant impression, it’s another thing to insert that character into your story in a unique and memorable way.

Don’t be stymied. Instead, go a bit theatrical.

Ever attend a play that’s had a successful run for a long period of time? The star–or a popular second lead–enters with extra panache. The audience roars with delight. The play pauses until the audience recovers from its outburst and settles down again. It might be only for a few seconds, but the experienced actor waits–teetering on the finely edged balance of maintaining character while acknowledging the cheers and applause. The actor has learned how to make an entrance with flair, and the audience loves it.

So, also, should your prose character make a dramatic entrance. You want your lead character especially to attract reader attention and interest. But even secondary characters can stand out in a story by the way they are brought in.

Avoid sneaking your characters into the story with next to no tags, without a name, with nothing that will make them ignite reader imagination. What’s the point of such a mousy story person? If you’re trying to be realistic, then you should understand that in prose realism equates to boring. What you want instead of realistic is plausible or credible. Just remember that those qualities do not cancel flamboyant, vibrant, and colorful.

Now there are multiple ways of introducing characters:

Description works okay if it’s brief, focused on dominant impression, and vivid, but it requires breaking viewpoint if used for the protagonist.

Introduction through presentation of habitat works for certain genres such as mysteries, where the sleuth prowls around a suspect’s home or work space with a search warrant. It can supply readers with a different perspective or insight into the character.

Discussion of a character about to enter the story for the first time works occasionally in humor or if it’s dramatically important to create reader curiosity and anticipation regarding the character yet to appear. In humorous stories, often an unreliable character will say disparaging comments in an effort to force a negative opinion about the person being introduced. Then, when the new character does appear, readers can see that the information related in dialogue is false. This is very much a specialized introduction method and not one that can be used often.

Introduction through character action can be memorable, dramatically charged, vivid, and effective. It is where the character comes onto the page like a stage actor:  exaggerated, tags waving, strongly presented, doing some action that is characteristic of his or her personality yet also advances the story.

Such entry action is unique to the individual and creates a lasting first impression compatible with the dominant impression you want to establish in your readership’s minds.

For example:  let’s say we want to introduce a character named Randolph. We have designed him to be timid, unassertive, nervous with his boss, easily intimidated, kind, intelligent, and risk-adverse. We have decided that Randolph–while brilliant at his job–becomes hopelessly inarticulate and ineffectual when face-to-face with his manager.

Here we have a dimensional character possessing some contradictory qualities. We want to introduce him memorably. What should we focus on first? His smarts and efficiency? Or his nervous babbling in meetings?

The answer is that it depends on two factors:  Randolph’s story role and the dominant impression you want to convey.

If, for example, the dominant impression is brilliant but underappreciated, then you need to show Randolph at work in his corporate cubicle, finishing up a successful CAD design that will shine in tomorrow’s presentation and finally convince his boss that Randolph belongs on the team.

However, if the dominant impression is twitchy fool, then you would introduce Randolph in an inept, stammering conversation with his boss that has him dropping his folder of papers, scrambling on the floor to recover them, knocking over the waste can, and failing to describe his design in a convincing manner.

The only way character entry action fails to make a memorable impression is when a writer is too timid in utilizing the technique. Whatever qualities you assign a character, exaggerate them. Be bold. Be large. Don’t mute a character because you’re unsure of yourself. Err on the side of vividness.

 

 

 

 

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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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