Saturday, June 21, 2014

#3 Thing Movies Teach Us About Writing Fiction

The primary characters in a work of fiction are fairly easy to keep track of. You need a protagonist, or hero, and an antagonist or villain of some kind. If you're writing a romance, you need a love interest.

And . . . we're done. For the average short story or work of flash fiction, you don't have space to add more characters than that. You'll be lucky to develop just two in the span of a few hundred or a thousand words.

But for longer short stories, novellas, and novels, and especially for series, it's sometimes important to add secondary characters to the work.

One of the quickest ways to learn about the different roles secondary characters can fulfill in your fiction is to study movies, because writing effective secondary characters is the third thing movies teach us about writing fiction.

Here are some of the roles secondary characters can fulfill:

1. Secondary characters act as sidekicks for the protagonist.

Think Sid the Sloth in the movie Ice Age, or Donkey in the movie Shrek. Manfred (Manny) the mammoth in Ice Age is on a mission to be alone so he can grieve his recent losses, and he and Sid fall in together by circumstance.

By the end of the movie, Sid is just as important a character as Manny, and you've learned a lot about them through their interactions together. Sid encourages Manny to break out of his sadness and commit to taking care of an abandoned human child until they can return the child to its "herd," a move that reunites a family and brings healing to Manny's heart.

2. Secondary characters act as foils for the protagonist.

A foil is a character who is the opposite of the protagonist in pretty much every way. The foil therefore showcases all of the protagonist's unique qualities by drawing attention to the way the two of them are so different.

In the movie Princess Diaries with Anne Hathaway as the totally inept and klutzy (at first) Mia, her foil (and antagonist) is the blonde cheerleader, Lana. While Mia can't even cross her legs without falling off her chair, Lana trots around in high heels and manages to look as sleek and sophisticated as a European model. Her grace emphasizes Mia's awkwardness, which is why the transformation Mia makes from awkward to chic has an even greater impact.

3. Secondary characters act as mentors for the protagonist.

A mentor is a character who's been before where the protagonist is now. Gandalf, the wizard in the movie The Hobbit is a mentor to Bilbo. The story is about Bilbo's adventure and transformation, but Gandalf supports him through with bits of timely wisdom and encouragement.

Some secondary characters fulfill more than one role. Because they are more well-rounded, the story is richer and more believable.

For instance, in the movie One for the Money, based on Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, Lula is not only Stephanie's sidekick but also a foil for her (Lula's African-American, likes to dress in tight spandex, and used to be a hooker; Stephanie is all-American white, wears jeans and t-shirts, and used to sell lingerie).

On the other hand, Ranger is both foil (he's Cuban-American, wears all black, is ex-military, and is the best bounty hunter in the company, while Stephanie isn't, doesn't, isn't, and is the worst bounty hunter in the company, in that order) and mentor (he takes Stephanie under his wing and tries to teach her how to be a more effective bounty hunter so she doesn't get herself or somebody else killed).

What secondary characters stick out in your head from movies you've seen or books you've read? What other roles can secondary characters fulfill? What roles do your secondary characters fulfill in your work-in-progress?

Monday, June 16, 2014

#2 Thing Movies Teach Us About Writing Fiction

The Problem

Ever heard (or had) a conversation in which the dialogue went like this?

Susan: "Hello, Jim."

Jim: "Hello, Susan."

Susan: "How are you?"

Jim: "Fine, thank you, and you?"

Susan: "I'm fine too, thanks. How's Megan?"

Jim: "She's doing well. How's Andy?"

And so forth.

If you were eavesdropping on that conversation, I bet you'd fall asleep or wander off to find more interesting fodder.

Yet many of us tend to write that kind of dialogue in our fiction.

Some of us are loners (okay, hermits) and we don't spend a lot of time listening to people talk. Some of us have been brow-beaten into believing that it's never okay to use an incomplete sentence in any writing we do, including our fiction.

We're shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot.

The Solution

The number two thing movies teach us about writing fiction is how to write dialogue the way people actually talk.

For Instance

In the movie While You Were Sleeping, starring Sandra Bullock as Lucy and Bill Pullman as Jack, the first scene when they meet could easily have turned into a "Hello, my name is . . ." exchange like the one between Susan and Jim.

Instead, the dialogue reads like this:

Jack: "Good morning."

Lucy: "Oh God. Oh. Oh, you scared me."

Jack: "Sorry."

Lucy: "Good morning, Jack."

Jack: "I guess I don't remember meeting you."

Lucy: "Well, it's probably because we've never met."

Jack: "That might have something to do with it."

(Sound of a car horn outside)

Lucy: "Ooh. Cab. I have to go. I'm really--- I'm really late 'cause I have to go. But I--- it was nice to meet you, Jack. So, goodbye."

Jack: "Lucy."

Lucy: "Okay, look, I--- I know that I---"

Jack: "Hey."

Lucy: "Hmm?"

Jack: "Welcome to the family."

Lucy: "Oh, thank you. . . . Bye."


There are some complete sentences in this exchange, but there are also a number of snippets that quickly move the dialogue and the scene along. And if the scene had included each person introducing himself and herself, and going through stereotypical niceties, it would have been five minutes longer and thirty times duller.

And viewers learn about the characters in the dialogue. Lucy is jumpy, nervous, possibly high-strung, and prone to rambling. Jack comes across as calm, collected, even taciturn, and stable.

If everyone in your novel always speaks in complete sentences and obeys every courtesy in conversation, unless your novel is historical and/or one of the characters' cultural origin is best revealed through through that style of communication, it'll be hard to distinguish one character from another. It will also be a challenge to reveal character differences with everyone speaking the same way.


What do you do to try to recreate realistic dialogue in your fiction? What movies have you seen that show you excellent examples of how to create dialogue that flows naturally and organically, and even that showcases some aspect of the character's personality?

Monday, June 9, 2014

#1 Thing Movies Teach Us About Writing Fiction

The number one thing movies teach us about writing fiction is how to show more and tell less.

"Show, don't tell" is today's mantra for the novelist. But how do we do that?

Author Jeff Gerke addresses that very question on his website: "Think of yourself as a filmmaker. You are allowed to include only that which the camera can see and the microphone can hear."

Picture your point-of-view character with a camera and a microphone on his or her head. The camera can only see what your character can see, and the microphone will only pick up what your character hears.

Read these sentences:

Bob had been in Mississippi the previous week on a business trip.

Mallory was double-majoring in finance and animal husbandry at Arizona State University, where she lived in a dorm with her friend Rachel and her nemesis Jill.

Suddenly, examples like these glare at you from your manuscript because there's no way the camera or the microphone could see or hear that information. That's how you know it's "telling" instead of "showing."

Movies get this technique right because there's usually no opportunity for information to be "told" to the viewer.

Watch A Few Good Men, and you learn that Daniel Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) is a spoiled, entitled brat in his first scene. Nobody has to announce that "Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee of the United States Navy was a spoiled brat who felt entitled to whatever he wanted." It's obvious from his words and actions.

In the Disney movie Frozen, the princess Anna doesn't have to announce that "Hans was a monster" when he turns against her. His actions and words, as he snuffs out every source of warmth in the room and leaves her to freeze to death, show viewers what he is.

Here's that first fiction example from above, rewritten:

Bob strode off the plane with his briefcase in one hand and his overnight bag in the other. Piles of snow along the edges of the icy tarmac glistened in the sunshine.

An attendant with an unnaturally white smile held the door for him. "Thank you for flying with us, and welcome to Denver."

"Give me snow over humidity and mosquitoes any day," he said.
She grimaced --- "Mississippi always feels that way" --- then looked past him to greet the next passenger.

Nothing in that rewritten passage can be seen or heard unless Bob sees, hears, and/or experiences it personally.

Imagine your character with the camera and microphone setup on his or her head. Rewrite one of your scenes with only what he or she can see and hear. Then compare it to the original scene and decide whether your writing is tighter and has fewer instances of telling.

You might be surprised.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

5 Things Movies Teach Us About Writing Fiction

Book reviews on a blog about writing make some sense. "What tools and techniques can we learn from these already published works of fiction and nonfiction?"

Movie reviews might make slightly less sense, but there's no reason that should be the case. In fact, I'd like to suggest that movies can teach us a lot of techniques for writing fiction.

Over the next several posts, I'll discuss these five things that movies can teach you about writing fiction (in no particular order).

(1) How to Show More and Tell Less

(2) How to Create Realistic Dialogue

(3) The Character Roles Your Story Might Need

(4) How to Create 3-Dimensional Characters

(5) How You Can Use a Tag Line in Your Pitch or Query

Stay tuned for the next installments, and let me know in the comments what a movie has taught you about the process of writing fiction.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Competition, a Secret, and a Free Book

I was privileged to learn that my short story, "Poetry by Keats," was awarded first place in the Writer's Digest Short Short Story Competition (find out more here about the competition).

Marianne is the story protagonist, a young woman trapped in a long-term relationship with Nick, who's controlling and possibly abusive. Marianne meets Jarrett, who embodies a different side of masculinity (quiet, reserved, creative). She finds herself torn between the familiarity of what she has always known, despite its downsides, and the "what could be," underscored by the fear of change and the unknown.

You can read the story in its entirety here, on the Writer's Digest website.

Also available, here, is an extended Q&A interview with me about my writing and the story.

I'm thankful to the Writer's Digest editors for their decision in awarding my story this year with such a renowned honor.

And now for the secret.

When I found out that my story had won, I dug it out of my files because I couldn't remember which story I had submitted. I reread it . . . and found a typo.

Yes, there's a typo in the award-winning story, despite my being an editor and proofreader, which just proves that even editors and proofreaders are human.

If you find the typo in the story and comment about it on this post before Wednesday, June 11, at 11:59 PM (Mountain Time), I'll pick two people who comment correctly, at random, and mail each of them one copy of the 14th Annual Writer's Digest Short Short Story Competition Collection.

Please note that people to whom I have already spoken about the typo (family and friends, specifically) will not be awarded.

Also note that this typo has nothing to do with punctuation, so if you disagree with where I put a comma or an em-dash, that's not what I'm after.

For all people commenting, leave links to your website, blog, and/or Twitter feed, and I'll return the favor and link back to you.

Happy hunting!