People vs Plot

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Ah, the age-old battle of many a writer. What matters most to a book or short story: the characters and the world they inhabit, or the story that they happen to find themselves in? I’m actually surprised at how definitive people’s views are on this: even by really well established writers. Will you indulge me for a few hundred words? Let’s dig into it a little.

A common misconception is that all the “best” novels, (however one decides what constitutes best, personally I think the notion to be a bit silly), are canonised because the characters are so brilliantly written. The idea being therefore that good characters trump a good plot.

Now look, that’s true of many a fantastic author. Heck, maybe even most of them. People from Elmore Leonard (who I often consider one of my favourites) to James Ellroy to Stephen King. But I can also think of many, like say the late great Michael Crichton, who are totally the opposite, and are proud to say it.

I’m proud to say it: I’m a concept/story guy. My characters are there to serve that. I like to move at a pace, and a solid concept serves that. My characters are caught up in it. I think they’re rounded and three-dimensional, but for me, the story is the thing. I love stories and authors where the opposite is true, but to place one above another to me is a bit silly.

I mentioned James Ellroy in my list of “people more than plot” writers. James Ellroy’s plot in the superb novel LA Confidential was mostly thrown out by Curtis Hanson (writer/director) and Brian Helgeland but the characters preserved. Not a surprise. The plot is wonderful in the book, but it’s too dense, intertwined and convoluted for a movie. But really, for LA Confidential, it was the characters that made it. A personal favourite from work is the protagonist in Clandestine. Highly recommended.

But don’t forget, excellent films based on books also often change characters around and make them fit the narrative, and the characters are secondary. It works either way.

I guess what I’m trying to say in this poorly-worded drivel is don’t get too held up on what sort of writer you are. You might be character-focused and that’s great. But don’t let anyone tell you that plot-focused writers are any less worthy. Not unless they’ve sold more copies of any one of their books than Dan Brown did when he released The Da Vinci Code.

Shattering the “every character must want something” rule

writing notes idea class

Time for another article in our occasional series about ignoring rules about writing.

Okay, that’s a little flippant, but you get where I’m coming from here. This one, I think, is easier to ignore than the rest. I’ve written about it before, but I’ve heard it so much again this year that I wanted to return to it as an issue. You will hear in writing classes that on every page, your protagonist (or other characters) must want something. In my humble opinion, this is another sure-fire way of guaranteeing that you’ll get stuck, right while you’re in your flow of writing something brilliant.

I can’t think of anything more destructive to a writer’s native talent that have them stop mid-flow and go “oh, hang on: that’s a beautiful piece of prose, and it really ties in well with the narrative I’m going for here, but I just realised, it’s not suddenly clear to the reader what the main character wants at this moment.

Writing so that characters constantly tick a rule box will produce boring content. Everything will be boring because it just moves the story on and nothing else. It ends up being just about the destination rather than the journey. If the destination was all that mattered, you could skip the book and go directly to the last page. Where would the fun be in that?

The madness of these rules. It’s almost like some of them were created just to make a writer’s jobs harder. And believe me, it’s hard enough!

Okay, so seriously, as with other “writing rules”, this one has come about for fairly good reasons. You don’t want your story – and indeed, your characters – to start meandering off into pointless areas. Your readers will get bored, and frankly, so will you as you’re writing the thing.

But to start suggesting that on every page your characters have to want something and that this needs to be clearly expressed is just going to lock you into a difficult corner creatively.

I have a better rule. And this is just a rule of thumb, one to ignore whenever you feel it’s right to: The READER wants something on every page. Give the READER an excuse to want to keep reading. That’s no way near as creatively stifling. It’s not specific about any given thing. Maybe there’s a plot twist, or a really powering piece of dialogue, or an question raised that demands an answer.

Deliver for your readers, not your characters. The characters are designed to serve you and your intended audience, not the other way around.

Sorry, rant over! 😉

Redundant words to delete from your writing

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This is a quick one to plug a short Medium article by Benjamin Dreyer. When I’m editing my first draft of a novel, I find that the thing I’m doing the most is removing unnecessary words. These are the words that you can get rid of, yet the sentence still makes perfect sense.

However, sometimes certain words which are not strictly necessary, help convey something else that the “simpler” phrasing doesn’t do on its own. A simple example: I could say something was “the best result”. It’s more ‘waffly’ to say something was “the least worst result”. There’s a whole extra word there, but I’d argue that the second phrase conveys something else: that this result was the best result out of a series of bad options. Does that make sense?

Anyway, this is (ironically) a ridiculously waffly way of introducing you to an article about removing redundant words. Here’s the article.

Do you agree with Benjamin’s assessments here? Either way, it’s food for thought.

In praise of Highland 2

highland2

The industry standard NLE (or Non-Linear Editor) for the TV drama/feature film industry is Avid’s Media Composer. It’s been around for many years, and the film industry’s entire post-production ecosystem is built around it. It’s complex, sophisticated, professional, and rock-solid. And as dull as hell.

It’s really clunky piece of software, that abandoned real innovations to filmmaking years ago. Arguably the most innovative alternative in the professional NLE space is Apple’s Final Cut Pro X. (the “x” is pronounced “ten”. It’s a roman numeral.) But it’s almost too different and radical for Hollywood. Only a handful of big-budget feature films have been cut on it. But its refreshing approach has been embraced by the rest of the industry outside of the conventional TV/feature film world. And by revenue, the corporate/communications/weddings/etc market is overall WAY bigger than TV/features.

So if you want to to be a feature film editor these days, do you need to learn Avid? Sure. But that doesn’t mean you have to use it to make your own films. There’s loads of great – and sometimes even free – alternatives.

The same goes (even more so) for screenwriting applications. I mean, you can use anything to write a screenplay, and there’s even some brilliant free applications that will help with industry-standard formatting, etc.

Final Draft is very much the Avid of screenwriting. It’s the industry standard. Whole pre and post-production workflows are built around it in the film/TV industry. If you work in that business as a screenwriter, there’s a strong chance you’re going to have to use it. It’s expensive, complex, sophisticated, and yes, like Avid, dull as hell. Unlike Avid, I wouldn’t describe it personally as “rock-solid” though.

However, just like the NLE world, there’s other great – and even free – alternatives. One that’s cheap and – for me – just like the Final Cut Pro X of the screenwriting world is Highland 2.

It uses the Fountain language. This is a version of markdown for screenplays, and if you have any knowledge at all of writing to industry standard screenplay formats, you’ll get this easily.

Check it out if you can. I’m no good at reviews, so you’re best getting those elsewhere. I will say this: worry about getting Final Draft once you’ve sold your screenplay, and need to start collaborating with others. Or if you need to work with others using industry standard tools for whatever other reason. Until then, you only need to get it on the page. And for me, I haven’t found anything as good for that as Highland 2.

Theme vs Plot

black and white people bar men

Just a quick post today about theme and how it’s different to plot. Writers way smarter and way more talented than me have ideas about this, but here’s my perspective.

First of all, yes, these things are quite different. Most people agree with that. I find that often a poor short story by a new writer has no theme. It’s just a story. In a good one there’s maybe a few nice emotional beats but overall, it’s quite flat.

In some ways, the theme is what you’re left with as a reader. The story comes and goes, but there’s a wider idea – emotional or otherwise – that you’re left with as a result. To put it in embarrassingly simple terms, the plot is what you’d describe when someone asks, “What’s your story about?” … The theme is what you describe when that same person’s follow-up question is, “Yeah, but what is it really about?” Does that make sense? Or any I being too simplistic?

A story with a really good theme will often influence the end of the plot, but also it can make the end of the story less important, and not in a bad way. Often the real climax of a story is just a bit before the end. Maybe – though obviously not always – the end of the penultimate chapter is the end of the plot. But the final chapter – possibly an epilogue – is there and feels really necessary because of the theme.

If there’s no consideration to the theme, then you might be only interested in nailing that ending and getting out. Nothing wrong with doing that. But if the theme is strong, then that can dictate when the ending occurs. It can be before or after the end of the actual plot.

Don’t get it right, get it written!

person holding blue ballpoint pen writing in notebook

Yes of course, you have to find a way of writing that’s comfortable to you. Some people write the equivalent of a novel twice over before they fire up the word processor and type the immortal ‘Chapter One’. Others dive in with a rough idea in their mind – or even just an opening – and try to see where they can go from there.

But I want to address a way of working that, while working really well for some, can often hold others back.

Do you revise as you go? Are you also the sort of writer who feels that they have to combat “writer’s block” a lot? If so, maybe this will help you:

Simply put, I think that for many people, if they take the time to tweak as they go, it’ll slow them down. That’s a hell of a lot of tedious work done during the most creative period, and it’s so boring that it might put you off firing up the laptop and getting on with the good stuff later.

You see, whether you tweak-as-you-go or not, you’ll have to edit and refine later on anyway. This is why I think it’s way better to get it written and save the editorial stuff all for later. Finish it, then take a few days off. Weeks or months even, then come back fresh and look at that stuff then. There will be a ton of things to fix and change, but hey, you’ve already written the novel at that point, so it’s not as daunting.

And really, that’s the psychological point at work here. Once you have a (very rough) first draft written, then the monkey is off your back. The book is written. It’s far from perfect, but it’s actually written. And from that moment, you can edit in a way that’s relaxed and without pressure. You’ve basically already written the thing: that’s a huge psychological breakthrough. No worries about “oh, well, I’m editing this but but I’ve still got 70% of the whole thing to write”. It makes a huge difference.

That is, it makes a huge difference to me. As always when it comes to the written word, your mileage may vary!

Writing better dialogue

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My views on rules for writing have been documented on this site far too many times, but certainly there are things that many writers do that can be useful, and when it comes to dialogue, I think there’s a few things that are often worth keeping in mind.

One of those rules I dislike is that everything should be driving your story forward. With novels like Succession of Power, I certainly liked to keep things pacy. Thrillers often lend themselves to that. And for them, the dialogue can often be terse, short, sharp and right to the point. But would that be true for a romantic novel, or a coming of age drama? Even many thrillers work because the author takes her time to help establish a relaxed pace. Phooey to the rules.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that exposition is important in dialogue, but often it’s not as important to our readers as we may think it is. A sense of authenticity matters more: even if it’s manufactured authenticity. Yeah. Fake authenticity. Kind of a contradiction in terms isn’t it? But it’s a fine line that lots of great dialogue treads.

In real life, people seldom just say what they mean. We’re complicated creatures, using a sophisticated communication style to convey subtle and complex ideas and information. We usually talk around subjects. That’s why dialogue that hits the concept of theme right on the nose sounds wrong so much of the time.

Here’s a tip – not a rule, you know what I think about rules – that might be helpful. If people seldom say exactly what they mean, try to get your characters to do the same. Let them tell us everything we need without always actually saying exactly the right words. Just like in the real world. If that means driving down the pace a little, then do it. Create a world that’s more believable.

Often you’ll find you need to use the dialogue for exposition or to tell us something, and you don’t want to do it any other way. Great. Do it. But even then, I’d try and write it in a way that feels authentic. A kind of heightened realism if you will. But don’t worry about trying to do this all the time. If you’re like me, you’ll try and do this a lot in a plot-driven, fast-paced story. But even in those novels, I try and create as many situations and scenes as I can when the actions and feelings of characters contradict the actual words. I do it because we all do it all the time. It helps create a powerful picture in our readers minds, and they’re the ones that count.

Just a final thought, because I’ve rambled on far too long here: Here is a little tip you might want to try out that could give your characters more distinctive dialogue: imagine them to be real people. People you know is great, or if not, characters from movies and TV shows. But if it’s not someone you know, try not to be too obvious in picking a famous character. Picture the face, the mannerisms. Even if you don’t describe these things in much detail (because while we’re on the subject of ignoring rules, don’t forget to ignore the “show don’t tell” one as often as you can), you start to build intuitively in your own mind a better picture of what the character is like.

And in doing so, I find it’s way easier to figure out what they sound like, and how they will communicate things, directly or indirectly.