Tag Archives: writing craft

Where the Action is (Cash Anthony)

Writing the dialogue for a screenplay, my favorite medium, has much in common with writing passages of dialogue in popular mainstream fiction. It’s sparser, and the layout is different, but the basic characteristics are the same — except in one important regard.

In both cases, the writer’s aim in dialogue is to illustrate character traits, or to trigger emotional responses, or to entertain, usually all three.

Note: it isn’t to convey information about a character’s backstory and relationships or to lecture the audience/reader with exposition that ought to come in gradually, elsewhere. Dialogue that departs from the present moment in the characters’ lives — where it steps outside that moment to tell the story, as if the speakers are aware of those looking in through the “fourth wall”, and they need to explain it all to them — that can be an real irritation. It amounts to talking to down to the audience/reader; and it bespeaks a writer who hasn’t taken the time find a subtle and imaginative way to get the same information across, if it’s even necessary to know it.

In today’s popular fiction, as in today’s screenplays, the idea is to show in the actions and reactions of the characters what they want, what they value, where the story is going and what the dialogue means.

In order to keep the tension going, the opposite approach is also useful: not to show or say what would be expected, as when a character fails to react. A trope of the horror genre is to give the audience information about the monster that makes it far more dangerous than previously known, information unknown to the hero or heroine–then to send the sympathetic characters on a maneuver certain to engage the monster at its worst. Patrons in movie theaters often shout a warning to them, so engaged are they in already knowing what could happen and hoping it won’t. When the audience knows, or wants to know, more about a character or situation than the world of the story reveals, this multi-layered subtext enhances the experience of the audience/reader as long as they can discover it for themselves. For the writer, it raises the quality of the work, holds attention, and keeps curiosity high about the next page.

Subtext permeates material written for a camera’s perspective, and it also colors popular fiction. Especially in comedy, it’s part of the game, part of the fun, to suss out clues to the hidden meanings and subtle dynamics of interchanges between characters. These clues often come in the form of body language, voice volume, personal “codes”, unconscious gestures, spatial positioning, and facial expressions.  And the nonverbal signals can work together, combining to repeat and emphasize or to shade and modify what is meant; or they can totally contradict the verbal message being sent.

Because the camera focuses so much on an actor’s face these days, writers who frequently watch contemporary movies have the benefit of seeing many different faces in extreme close-up. One can look back at the last fifty years of films and see that the camera has gotten ever closer to its subject, where a twitch of an eyebrow or the wink of an eye conveys something beneath the surface.  The best actors are masters of this, filling every moment they’re on screen with fascinating nuanced expressions. If these signals are supposed to be part of the “message” of a scene, the unspoken dialogue, one would think that a script would tell the director and actor to be sure it’s performed and captured correctly, yes?  Not so.

The important difference between popular prose fiction and screenplays is this: describing telltale nonverbal expressions and gestures belongs in the work of the fiction writer. But it must be eliminated from the work of the screenwriter!

“Don’t direct!” is a rule cited frequently to screenwriters. “Directing” here means stating exactly how a segment of dialogue is to be spoken, what the actor’s expression and gestures should be, and how the hearer is supposed to react. It can also mean saying where the camera is supposed to be and how the actors move.

In a screenplay where an actor, a studio gatekeeper or other in-house reader is expected to read and rate it, the writer can suggest attitudes and emotions in movements meant to show subtext underlying the characters’ behavior and expressions, but it must be done with an extremely light touch. Too much, and it steps on the toes of the director and the actors. They are all professionals, they have imagination and insights, and they will collaborate about how to play a scene, about what the writer’s words mean. They may even find a meaning the writer didn’t realize was there in the words on the page. Script readers are very sensitive to this.

Fiction writers get to ignore that rule. For them, the question becomes how to enrich and deepen passages of important dialogue by doing just that: directing the reader’s attention to the unspoken communication that helps them see and understand the scene.

Inserting a description of a character’s facial expressions is one way to suggest emotions and reactions, as well as to enhance the pacing of “talky” scenes. To break away from the face to a character’s movements or body language can detract from the intensity of some conversations; it can also read as “stagey” and artificial in the middle of an argument. How many times have we read scenes where conflict comes to the surface and one character “slams his hand down” on something, or “storms out of a room” or “slams a door”? But putting in a brief reference to a character’s facial movements keeps the intensity up.

Another reason to include facial expressions in passages of fictitious dialogue is that they can cure a problematic scene, if nothing else works, and even improve it. When a string of dialogue sans attribution threatens to get the reader confused, that confusion could be cleared up with “He said” and “She said.”  But it can also be erased by describing something about the face of the character who is speaking that is completely different from others in that scene.

In addition to the expressions that pass across a character’s face, writers can use the observation that people touch their faces unconsciously all the time. How and how often varies according to culture and age, providing the opportunity for comedy again. These movements can also hint that something lies below the surface, beneath the apparent dynamics of a situation that is not what it seems.

Scientists working with facial recognition software, law enforcement agencies like the FBI, and artists like painters or sculptors all see a face in its parts as well as in its totality. The eyebrows can distort a face into a scowl, or they can lift with delight. The nose can wrinkle with distaste or disgust (two different emotions) as well as moving to lift one nostril only, as part of a sneer. Without changing anything else on a “neutral” facial palette, one zone of expression can express a wide range of meanings via subtle changes in muscle tension and shape.

This gives a fiction writer a huge number of options. Descriptions of characters need not be dumped into an introductory paragraph, all at once, but can be teased out via all the nonverbal communication that ensues naturally in a scene, including facial expressions.

For the screenwriter, the script has to be so good that the reader’s emotional responses can be predicted, so good that the pleasure of reading this particular script begins at once and doesn’t stop until “Fade Out”, with the reader happily imagining how the lines will sound and perhaps even imagining how specific actors will play the best roles.

Screenwriters and writers of popular fiction would both do well to remember how, with a camera so close to the actor’s face, it becomes a tapestry of movement. It’s really where the action is now.

Cash Anthony is an award-winning Houston screenwriter, author, editor, and director for stage and film. Her short stories have appeared in A Death in Texas, Dead and Breakfast, A Box of Texas Chocolates, Twisted Tales of Texas Landmarks,Underground Texas, and Deadly Diversions. She holds a B.A. in Plan II and a J.D. from The University of Texas at Austin.


1 Comment

Filed under Writing Craft

Why Are Some Book Reviews More Useful Than Others? (Mark and Charlotte Phillips)

The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing
by Mayra Calvani and Anne K. Edwards
Twilight Times Books
Copyright: 2008
ISBN: 1933353228
Format: ebook, paperback
Non-Fiction/How to
Have you ever puzzled over a book review and wondered if the reviewer was a personal friend of the author? Perhaps you’ve read a review and wondered what took place between reviewer and author to prompt such a vicious collection of words. Anyone who reads book reviews is sure to have come across one of he increasing number of lazy reviews – the ones that make you wonder if the reviewer read the book, or just read the back cover.
When I first started writing reviews, I studied work from different professional sources and found examples of all three of these fairly useless review types mixed in with many examples of excellent reviews that delivered the straight forward information I sought. I wanted the reviews I wrote to fall into this latter category. Unfortunately, my honest opinion of my own work was that it was a clumsy imitation of the useful reviews. I needed help.
That’s when Mayra Calvani and Anne K. Edwards came to my rescue with their fantastic guide, The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing. I count my lucky stars this book was published in the same year I started writing reviews. This straight forward, easy to follow guide contains four parts:
  • The Art of Reviewing explains how to be a good reviewer, defines a book review, teaches the reviewer what it means to read critically, different types of reviews, and much more, including how to start your own review site
  • The Influence of Book Reviews discusses the different institutions that use or depend on book reviews – readers, libraries, authors, publishers, etc.
  • Resources is chock full of great resource information for book review writers
  • The appendix contains a sample press release
The stated aim of the book is “to offer some guidelines in a clear manner supported with targeted examples of how to write and publish thoughtful, well-written reviews…” The certainly meet that goal.
The pages of The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing are full of great advice that is backed up by examples. The reviewer is gently, but firmly, reminded book reviews should be written for the reader. The reviewer has an obligation to read the book, to provide an honest opinion of the book, and to support that opinion with examples from the book under review.
Hints and examples of ways to keep your reviews on the professional level are provided throughout. Following is one example on the subject of tact:
“Stating your thoughts tactfully and eloquently while offering examples to support your evaluation will keep the negative review from sounding harsh, mean, or insulting. Your aim is not to offend or humiliate the author, but clearly explain to the reader why this particular book is not worth reading.”
“Avoid statements like, ‘This is a terrible book’ … the harsh phrases mentioned above can be replaced by, ‘This book didn’t live up to its full potential because…”
Using the advice and guidance in this book improved my reviews to the point that strangers began following my reviews in places like GoodReads.
In case there is any doubt, let me say I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn how to write professional reviews. Others may also find value, such as reviewers seeking new outlets for their work and readers who would like to develop a deeper understanding of the professional reviews.

Mark and Charlotte Phillips
         Eva Baum Mysteries – Hacksaw, The Case of the Golden Key
         The Resqueth Revolution (sci-fi)
Short stories included in:
Deadly Diversions (2012)
Underground Texas (2011)
Twisted Tales of Texas Landmarks (2010)
A Box of Texas Chocolates (2009)
A Death in Texas (2008)
Demented (2011)
Sleeping with the Undead
Erotic Dreamspell

1 Comment

Filed under Books, Writing Craft

Finding Time (Debra Black)

It is easy to say “I’m too busy right now.” or “I will sit down and write that in a few hours.”  However, the challenge to take up the proverbial gauntlet and actually let the creative ideas pour forth has yet to be answered.  Perhaps you only have a few short lines that may evolve into a poem.  Maybe you want to get started on a novella that touches a subject close to your heart.  Possibly the idea of scaring your friends with a good old fashioned horror story makes you snicker.

Finding the right time to place the words somewhere concrete can be a daunting task.  Daily life can take up a significant chunk of our attention span.  I wake up, go to work, squeeze in a lunch break if I can manage it, drive to the gym, work out, drive home, shower, dress, and head over to hang out with my friends on any given evening.  We spend the time talking about work, eating dinner, working our way through video games, watching movies, or settling in for a commentary on various subjects to be found on YouTube.  Sometimes we discuss our writing, or lack therein of.  This doesn’t even take into account the various tasks like shopping and laundry that eat up precious moments we would rather spend doing something more entertaining.

Here is the point.  If you are reading this I assume you want to write, but to be successful we are going to need to change our habits.  This may require giving up something else, such as some of that video-game mania (I don’t wanna!).  It could also be accomplished by waking up a bit earlier, or going to sleep a bit later, and dedicating that time to sitting in front of a preferred writing device.  Another idea would be to invite someone else who enjoys writing to sit with you at a chosen time during the week. They could work on something for themselves while you simply enjoy each other’s company (or use each other as sounding boards if you feel like it).

There are so many things we all do in a given week.  My challenge to myself is to pick one day a week to start.  On this day, I will dedicate one hour to writing.  I will not make it some hour squeezed out of a hectic flurry of events.  I will sit somewhere I feel comfortable, and I will make a concerted effort to take the time I have previously taken for granted and do something for myself that will make me feel accomplished and let me have some fun with my imagination.

For those of you who have conquered the time management of writing to the degree that one hour seems ludicrously short, I have a further challenge for you.  November is National Novel Writing Month. During this month (or any other month if you find yourself inspired) you can undertake the challenge of writing 50,000 words in 30 days.  Log onto http://nanowrimo.org/ and feel free try your hand at being ridiculously over-productive while the rest of us find the gumption to stumble through our first paragraphs.

A final bit of advice… If you find yourself looking at the time and thinking of your assigned hour for writing with dismay… stop.  Don’t force yourself to do something that should be fun.  Find your own time and your own way to express your imagination.  A story that you dread writing will most likely be as painful to read as it was to produce.

1 Comment

Filed under Writing Craft

Writing for the marketplace—Part 1 (Cash Anthony)

Who knows the difference between “literary fiction” and the other kind? Show of hands? Not many readers, and most of them are probably also writers or English majors.

Well, what is literary fiction? Moira Allen, blogging at Writing-World.com, approaches the question by stating first what it’s not: it’s not “genre” or mainstream fiction, which includes romance, mystery, thriller, comedy, science fiction, fantasy, and so on. Others attempt but fail to clarify by saying that literary fiction is reading required in “college English classes” as opposed to books found in “the grocery checkout line.” [The Beginning Writer’s Answer Book, by Jane Friedman].

One of the primary differences between literary fiction and genre fiction is that the emphasis in mainstream fiction is on plot, as opposed to character. In one editor’s opinion, “I don’t think mainstream fiction…takes as many risks with character, form, subject matter, or style as literary fiction, because its primary concern is the market place.” [Beth Alvarado, fiction editor for CUTTHROAT: A Journal of the Arts.]] Yet plot is clearly not a dispensable element in any story, for “Beautiful writing needs some glue to hold it together,” says Ronna Winegold, a senior fiction editor at Bellevue Literary Review. Since plot is, for many writers, the crucible that reveals character, the difference is surely one of degree. This makes for a distinction without a difference and further fails to clarify the issue.

If you are trying to meet submission requirements for a publisher, for example, a statement in the guidelines that the editors seek “character-driven” stories” that confront a “moral dilemma” would seem to allow almost any good story to come in. Insofar as style is also an important factor, a writing style only becomes apparent when the reader begins to experience what is on the page. This sets up a Catch-22 situation, for the writer is trying to persuade the reader to pick up that page, to begin with.

Why is it important for writers to know about literary fiction, anyway? Well, being the author of a story published by a leading literary magazine can help new writers raise their profiles. Some litmags have been introducing successful writers for decades. If they have liked a story, book publishers take note that the novel which follows merits a look.

Thus the writer of literary fiction—or of that hybrid known as “literary genre fiction”!—has higher hurdles to leap. He or she must do more during a pitch than simply tell what happens on a narrative level; more is required to entice an agent or editor to take a look at work that purports to reach inside, melt pre-conceived notions, and touch the reader’s heart.

In genre fiction and other popular storytelling modes today—which include movies, streaming Internet webisodes, and interactive games—this empathy-driven identification with the story’s symbols is manipulated to attract and incite a huge number of fans to share a common illusion of experience. In literary fiction, the writer must command all that and more. What makes the work transcendent is that the reader becomes more interested, and more invested, in the character’s psychological world, and what this reveals about human nature, than in the plot.

Is literary fiction more difficult to sell? Editors indicate that they’re looking for the same thing that mainstream or genre editors want: “a new voice,” “fiction that communicates ideas, concepts, or feelings that transcend the structural elements of the story,” and definitely “nothing predictable.”

What causes editors at literary magazines to reject a story? There are many reasons, including “Unsuitable for the magazine,” “Too much cleverness,” “Stereotypical plots,” “Lack of texture,” “Stories that have not been thought out. “If this sounds suspiciously like a checklist that an editor of any genre would have, Regina Williams, editor and publisher of The Storyteller Magazine, gives another familiar piece of advice: “Read the guidelines. Edit more than once. Keep writing.

She also advises writers, “Never give up. Even the most well-known authors have gotten rejection letters.”
The reality is that any writer’s first task, after typing “The End,” is to sell the story and convince the buyer (the agent, the editor, the publisher, the producer) that it is worth promoting to the world at large, and that it will become popular. Thus there must be some criteria other than large sales and wide popularity that writers and editors use to tell whether a story is a piece of literary fiction, a hybrid, a genre piece, or a wannabe.

A subsequent blog will focus on what those other criteria might be.

Cash Anthony is an award-winning Houston screenwriter, author, editor, and director for stage and film. Her short stories have appeared in A Death in TexasDead and BreakfastA Box of Texas ChocolatesTwisted Tales of Texas Landmarks,Underground Texas, and Deadly Diversions. She holds a B.A. in Plan II and a J.D. from The University of Texas at Austin.

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing Craft