The Lead Role

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…

Yes, we all play many roles throughout our lives. We change, we grow, we experience, and we change again and again. But through all the different parts we play, there is one that remains constant.

In our life story, we get top billing.

We are each the star of our own tale.

Remembering this can help in writing and everyday life.

First, the writing. When making side-characters or minor characters, it adds so much depth to just remember that nobody sees themselves as the side-character. That “throwaway character” is the star of his or her own book. They have their own origins and backgrounds, their likes and dislikes and moral compass (or lack thereof). They have their own hopes and dreams and their own feelings about what is going on.

That may seem difficult to bring to the page, and it’s not like you want to spend pages on every single person that enters the scene, but visualizing a full character can help nail that instant impression.

We all label and judge others off of our first impressions of people – despite how many times we are wrong. Even if we aren’t racist or sexist or elitist or any other -ist, our brains are. Our brains like to categorize and organize.

That big guy over there? Looks like a dumb meat-head. Probably works out all the time.

That prissy looking girl there? I bet she’s never known a day of hard work in her life. Gets her money at the Bank of Mum and Dad.

Quiet kid with the bad hair and cartoon-ey something on his t-shirt? Socially inept and probably out of touch with reality. One of those video gamers.

And that type of snap judgement – that’s okay for a story. The main characters can show that they’re human and flawed if they judge someone wrong. If it’s correct, then it’s a quick way of saying who a minor character is. Yes, they’re basically stereotypes, but the reader is going to categorize and judge them as soon as they can anyway.

It even works with main characters. Get the stereotyping out of the way quickly, and then allow the character to grow beyond those bounds. That’s the progression we make with real people, so it only makes sense to do it with the characters in a story.

Speaking of real life, we’re not going to just stop judging and stereotyping others – despite our good intentions. But we don’t want those initial impressions to dictate how we treat others. Remember, everyone is the star of their own story.

And everyone has a story.

We need to remind ourselves that everyone around us has all sorts of pressures and stresses and hopes and dreams. We are all human beings. We could all use a little more empathy.

Take the time to just people watch and try to imagine what part of their life story you are witnessing.

I suppose I might have an advantage in this respect because I am constantly seeing people on some of the worst days of their lives. Sometimes it’s a close call or second lease on life, sometimes it’s the last day of their life.

It’s amazing what people can survive, and surprising just how fragile we really are.

We are each our own comedy and tragedy, drama and adventure.

Try to look beyond just the cover.

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The Word Search

I have a problem.

The words that I’m writing here, I’ve erased and rewritten about five times now.

There are better words to use. There are better ways to phrase this.

I can do better. I can always do better.

While this attitude can be very helpful in editing and trying to write something of quality, it horribly impedes my progress in first drafts and things like NaNoWriMo.

Because I’m always trying to edit as I write.

It’s an incredibly difficult habit to just put on hold while I write. But it just doesn’t work to sit and stare at the screen for ten minutes while I try to think of the absolute best way to word my wordy words. That’s what editing is for.

One way I combat this is to use a typewriter (no, I don’t take it to Starbucks with my curly mustache and big front-wheeled bicycle). It’s my version of writing with a pen instead of a pencil. As I write, I go along and whoops there’s a mistake oh well we must press on! Embrace the imperfections!

When I use the computer, I end up looking up every word to see if there is a better synonym out there (there is) or looking up pictures and researching the exact layout of the Louvre because one of my characters stopped by once. Google Street View is great for getting an impression of a real location, but it is terrible for actually writing something down.

This inner editor problem isn’t even relegated to writing. People ask me a question and the Jeopardy! theme song starts as I try to form the perfect answer. The clocks tick. Time passes. The leaves change colour and fall to the ground. Still, I search for the right words.

My sisters had a phrase when conversing with me: “Spit it out!”

I hear it when someone asks how my weekend went. I hear it when the burger jockey asks if that’ll be all. I hear it when I sit down at the keyboard.

Spit it out.

Spit it out.

SPIT IT OUT.

Get the words out of my brain space and into the real world.

Other than the basic not-enough-hours-in-the-day conundrum, this is definitively my biggest obstacle when it comes to writing.

The Heavyweight

When I think about the act of writing, I tend to picture a montage. There I am, typing away at the keyboard, marking a timeline on a whiteboard, pinning pictures and pieces of paper to a wall connected together with yarn strings to map out a complex web of ideas, Eye of the Tiger is playing loudly and a quirky personal coach is egging me on.

Reality is a little closer to fifteen rounds in the ring with Apollo.

It’s ugly. It’s brutal. I am fighting to keep this story going but I can’t see where I’m going any more. I’m just taking swings at the keyboard, hoping something lands. I’m asking friends, relatives, and random strangers bizarre questions just so that I can bleed out some new ideas. Cut me, Mick!

Maybe I’ll lose this one. Maybe I’ll look at it once it’s finished and chuck it in the garbage. Maybe there’s nothing worth salvaging in the whole lot.

But it’ll be finished.

I’ll have stood up to the challenge. Seen it through to the end.

I ain’t no bum, Mick. I ain’t no bum.

Talking the Talk

“Alright everyone, if you could just take your seats then we can get this started. So, can anyone in class tell me what they think makes effective dialogue? Hmm? What do you feel works and what doesn’t work for dialogue in writing? Come on, don’t be shy. Yes, Mr. Miller, what are your thoughts?”

“Well, in my writing I used to start or end every spoken bit with ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ but it seemed really repetitive.”

“Ah, the use of identifiers! Was there something that inspired your stance on the matter?”

“I guess it started when I first read Ernest Hemingway. It felt like in The Sun Also Rises there was alot of conversations, but he didn’t use those identifiers very often.”

“And yet you still knew who was speaking, didn’t you? That’s the power of using context to identify your characters. If you want an exaggerated experience, with little to no identifiers, try reading No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. A very unique experience in my opinion. What else? Yes, Miss Atwood?”

“What if there are, like, tons of people talking all at once? Don’t you need ‘he said/she said’?”

“Not always. I’m not entirely discouraging the use of identifiers, don’t get me wrong. They are often quite appropriate for various situations, but the can be a crutch that bogs down the flow of reading. One effective tool to help your reader distinguish the various characters in a dialogue is the use of unique syntax.”

“Umm, like, what’s a syntax?”

“Perhaps Mr. Perrelli would like to join our discussion and expound on syntax. Yes, welcome back to the conscious world. This is not nap time. Please, Mr. Perrelli, explain to Miss Atwood the effects of syntax on dialogue.”

“Sure, yeah. No sweat, prof. Syntax is like the way peoples put their words together in a sentence. So, if you’re from the south and gots a funny way of talking, it can show in your syntax.”

“Or if you’re from Brooklyn, it would seem. Not an entirely kosher explanation, but it serves our purposes today. Think of it like this, if I were to say, ‘Know me by my words, you do. A different way of speaking, I have. Size matters not.’  you immediately recognize the character as Yoda. A writer would almost never have to tag on, ‘said Yoda’ to something Yoda says because it would be clear as daylight! His syntax is that unique and recognizable. You too can create characters with unique ways of speaking!”

“I totally get it! So, if I had a guy that talked like Christopher Walken, that’d, like, be his syntax.”

“Close. You’re almost there. Just because someone has a specific way they sound, even if it’s a character in your head, that doesn’t always translate to the written word. Penning someone with an Australian accent is more than just spouting the phrase ‘shrimp on the barbie’ and hoping your readers are hearing the same voice you are. It involves the overall choice in wording as well as sentence structure. And of course, much research in the accent you’re gunning for. Beyond accents, you can also give the reader a huge sense of a character’s background. Are they well read and grammatically correct? Is their verbosity so veraciously vivacious and vibrant that it stands vigil to their very vaudevillian vanity? Or do the words they speak lend towards a simple, straight forward way of thinking? Do they even fully speak the words, or cut them short when they’re talkin and goin bout their work?”

“I gotcha, Prof! Dialogues is like a script. We write the story parts, but the characters write the talking parts. Not every character is gonna be written the same. The viva-verb-vanity guy isn’t gonna suddenly say, ‘Aww crap! This sucks wads’.  Plus, the more different a guy talks, the easier it is to pick him out of a bunch of dialogue.”

“Well said. Variety is the spice of character dialogue. Hark! My good students, heed my warning. Playing around too much with syntax or going too far can be very objectionable. I call it the Jar Jar Binks effect!”

“Like, OMG, total nerd alert.”

“Does anyone here care for Jar Jar Binks? No? Not one? Part of it is because he has so alienated the audience by his manner of speaking. A character can become so utterly involved in their unique way of speaking that it actually distracts from the story and disengages the reader. Someone who seems to know just how far to push unique syntax choices would be Terry Pratchett in his Discworld series. Very unique dialects and very funny.”

“But, like, what if I want the dialogue to sound real? I don’t do that fake accent, nerd stuff. I want totally realistic conversations.”

“A valid point as there is a very large audience for that. In fact, I would hazard that most fiction is done in this manner. There are several excellence exercises that will help you tune into ‘realistic’ conversations and how to artificially create them. One is to simply pay attention to the conversations around you and to the very ones you conduct. Another is to pick your favorite shows, ones that have dialogue and characters that you adore, and watch it with the closed captioning on. It will help you to make that link between the thing heard and the thing read. One show that I think did especially well when it comes to witty and glib dialogue was Gilmore Girls. I don’t know if I can readily be called a fan of the show, but I did appreciate the caliber of writing involved in the dialogue.”

“That show is soo seven years ago.”

“Yes, that is why it is on Netflix.”

“They spoke, like, hella fast too. Like, cocaine fast.”

“Thus the recommendation for closed captions.”

“I think at the end, she totally went for Jess. I have this idea that -”

“Which brings me to another aspect of realistic dialogue. People generally don’t spend five minutes at time spewing words from their face unless they are giving a speech. Speeches should be used sparingly in dialogue.”

“You said it, Prof. Maybe you should, ya know, be done with yours.”

“Dialogue is an exchange. Turns must be taken.”

“Yeah, and turns should be over by now, Prof.”

“It is much like a conversation ball being tossed between two people.”

“-and he’s, like, in his bookshop when she shows up. And they see each other and just know, cause they were totally meant to be-”

“Or tossed between some and bounced off of the unaware.”

“Yeah, and sometimes a guy doesn’t know when to give up the ball. Amiright?”

“Of course, if you’re doing a period piece, one should consider…”

“Oh jeez.”

 

What You Don’t Know Could be Awesome

As Gatekeepers to the ancient knowledge of storytelling, many an English teacher hath proclaimed, “Write what you know.”

It is generally the first rule handed down to the aspiring writer. I know I’ve heard it many times.

Of course, those who have successfully flown beyond the constraints of structured language and let loose with furious passion their rebelliously crafted tales inevitably cry out, “Write what you want!”

So, who is right?

They both are. Obviously.

A good army cannot be built without strict discipline. A great army totally needs robots.” – Sun Tzu

The point that this completely accurate quote alludes to is that a good story cannot be built around a random assortment of words and ideas. There must be structure. There must be some sort of order involved. Even if the goal of a writer is to break the rules, it is essential to know what it is you are breaking.

Many are the criminals who know the law better than those who abide by the law.

Before you cast off the constructs of English 101 to write your own Finnegans Wake, start with the rules. Color inside the lines.

Write what you know.

What this means is to reflect on the experiences and relationships you have had. Pick apart the conversations between your friends and your foes. You have experience in being part of the human condition and that is what stories are based on. That is what draws in your readers.

Even the Greek tales of old, with mighty and powerful gods, all relate to human attitudes and motivations. Almost every tale involving Zeus starts with some hot new thing that he’s gotta bone. He’s like Quagmire from Family Guy. And who hasn’t known at least some desperate man-slut like that? I mean, that describes the motivations of almost every boy the minute he hits puberty.

Take these things that you know, the people, the experiences, the feelings, and work with them on the page. Learn to draw out the flavor out of your experiences.

Then you can take what you know and transport it to wherever it is you want to go.

Jules Vern did not journey to the center of the earth before he wrote about it. H.G. Wells was not involved in interplanetary warfare. Stephenie Meyer never met angsty sparkly vampires.  Vampires don’t sparkle.

The best of stories delve into the unknown and the impossible. They plunge us head first into awesomeness that we’ve never even dreamed of.

To write something new and exciting, take what you know on a journey.

It wasn’t Sam and Frodo climbing Mount Doom. It was two best friends handed an assignment that seemed way above their league.

When you transport your experiences into different story settings, you are taking what the reader knows and relates to with you. The characters you create and base on real life experiences and traits, well, the reader has experienced those types of people too. We all have. It’s part of being human.

It’s what we know.

Now take us somewhere.