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Robert's Rules of Writing #29: Call "Action!"

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

With this rule, Masello suggests a way to figure out what happens next if your story comes to a grinding halt. His advice is to close your eyes and imagine the story unfolding in front of you as if it's on a movie screen. He says that by letting your mind run free, you can play out different scenarios and figure out where the story should go from here.

To me, this sounds like a good idea at first. However, when Masello mentioned envisioning one's story as a movie, a red flag went up in my mind. I remember one book on writing in which the author had been advised to envision his book as a movie. (At the moment, I can't recall whose writing book this was.) He felt this was a horrible idea, because a movie story is all on the surface, viewed from an outside point of view, and there's no way to get inside the character's heads. If you write your story by imaging the movie and just writing down what you see and hear, you're missing all the other senses and all the internal conflict that makes a novel the experience it is.

By the way, that's why almost all the TV and movie novelizations and tie-in stories you read have deep multiple internal points of view. (For an excellent example of this, check out the Serenity novelization by Keith R. A. DeCandido (kradical) -- or almost any other of his tie-in books. End plug.) Each scene starts deep within a main character's point of view and stays there as the scene unfolds. It's one of the strengths of printed fiction over movies and television, so it's important to take advantage of it when writing a tie-in.

However, I'm pretty sure Masello wasn't going that far with this rule. I've read many of his novels, which have plenty of internal characterization. The point of this rule is simply to present one more technique that might help a writer get unstuck.

And there are many ways to get a story moving again. One writer -- was it Raymond Chandler? -- suggested that if you don't know where the story is going, throw in a man with a gun. You may not know what he's doing there and what he wants, but his appearance definitely introduces conflict and action. Another writer suggested having uncle Fred show up from out of nowhere. Crazy uncle Fred! Dangerous uncle Fred! What bizarre scheme is up his sleeve this time? Suddenly all your characters have to react to Fred's presence, whether they want to or not.

And in the end, who knows? Maybe envisioning your story as a movie will lead to a movie deal. If so, I'll be more than happy to go see it with you on opening weekend. But you're buying the popcorn.

Comments

The check is in the mail. ;)
Hee! In similar vein to the Chandler idea, a friend has given me the invaluable suggestion: when stuck, set something on fire.
All such advice has to do with stirring things up, making something interesting and dramatic happen that your characters must immediately react to.

Of course, in your case, you've got plenty of dragons to set things on fire... :-)

movie visuals vs. brain intangibles

The way I like to interpret "write as if it were a movie" is to make sure that you bring as much of the story into the tangible realm as possible. It's a reminder that while being inside a character's head might be interesting, the behaviors that stem from those thoughts and emotions are even more interesting. Instead of having a character realize he might die (whether it's "Barry knew he had one second to life" or "Barry lost focus on everything except the barrel of the gun" or "Oh, crap!!"), have the character wet himself. Even in first person, characters can behave without explaining; there's added tension when the character is thinking one thing and doing another thing, too. "I looked down the barrel of the gun, trying to think of anyting I could do to save myself, when I felt my bladder release."

Where I have the biggest trouble myself, however, is when talking about science or philosophy. It's not something we get to see; we see only the results or side-effects. Until you get to know a certain character well, a refusal to eat an offered cookie might be considered rude, an attempt at maintaining decorum or status, or even a way to avoid an allergic reaction to nuts. But what if the cookie reminds him of his recently departed sweetheart? If we stick to movie rules, we kind of have to flashback to a moment, even if only a sentence long, to the "cookie moment." Even so, that's still more interesting than "The cookie reminded him of his sweetheart, and the pain he still experienced every time he thought of her."
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