… Dwight V Swain – Techniques of the Selling Writer.
I read Swain’s book a long time ago but recently picked it up again as a refresher.
Here’s a summary of the bits I found most pertinent.
1. Story elements: character, situation, objective, opponent, disaster. Write the story question: two sentences – one statement which establishes character, situation and objective. One closed question which nails opponent and disaster.
When high-profile Fat Cats start committing suicide, Detective Beatrice Stubbs investigates if something more than conscience got to them. Can she track down the puppeteer behind these murders before the killer cuts her strings?
2. Get started: use desire, danger and decision. Start with a change – a character in an existing situation is affected by an event, triggering consequences. But answer the three reader questions: Where am I? What’s up? Whose skin am I in?
Don’t labour backstory; the past holds no suspense. The end of the beginning comes when the character has committed to action, to answering the story question. Will she? Can she? The reader must care.
3. Develop the middle: don’t stand still. Every unit must build, focused on the story question, taking the character(s) from frying pan to fire, adding complications and constantly changing. (See scene and sequel below.) Begin to snip off loose ends as you build to climax.
4. Climax: set up the situation where the character faces the ultimate dilemma. Make her act on her irrevocable choice and reward/punish her for her decision. Box her in, make principles preclude the easy option, the alternative must spell disaster but the goal remains vital. Use a gimmick – an object or phenomenon which exerts a powerful emotional pull. Register this early in the story – the talisman, thunderstorm, sound of a sitar – and bring it back at the climax, tipping her in the desired direction.
5. Resolution: after the climax, the character suffers a moment of anguish – did she do the right thing? Reverse the situation with an unexpected development; the obvious won’t do. Give her the reward. The satisfying ending is not the same as the happy one. Her original desire may have changed completely, but an emotional need is met. It’s the original goal you need to fulfil/deny, depending on whether your ending is positive/negative. Tie up any loose ends and indicate the characters have a future.
6. How to write in scenes and sequels.
A scene is a unit of conflict, lived through by character and reader. A sequel is a unit of transition to link two scenes. A scene should follow a pattern: goal, conflict, disaster. The reader must understand the goal, which needs to be specific, and aware of the forces of opposition, which generates conflict. Within the conflict, you can add more challenges & complexities, upping the stakes and increasing the challenge. Finally, a curveball arrives, throwing your character into a situation where she faces a choice. This is your hook – what will she do now?
7. Scene-writing Dos …
Do establish time, place, circumstance and viewpoint at the start – confusion infuriates readers. Even if the main character isn’t in this scene, it must have a focal character to orient the reader.
Do establish scene goal quickly. It must be specific and achievable within the time frame.
Do ensure strong, unified forces of antagonism for power and clarity.
Do build to a curtain line. The disaster may not be actually disastrous, but it raises the question – what’s next?
… and Don’ts
Don’t write too small. It’s hard to develop a meaningful scene in under a thousand words.
Don’t go into flashback. Scenes need forward movement in the present. Flashbacks at moments of conflict are unrealistic, straining the reader’s patience. Don’t summarise. Let the reader live every moment of the tension.
8. A sequel’s function is to translate the previous disaster into a new goal, to telescope reality and to control tempo. Sequels show the character’s reaction and new direction, based on logic. This takes longer and may lack movement, so summary is essential. This is the valley after the peak, a breathing space. Sequel’s structure is reaction, dilemma, decision. These may involve incidents and interactions, but no conflict. Skip the emotionally non-pertinent, use the symbolic fragment to indicate state of mind, create an impressionistic montage to convey the essence.
Scene/sequel balance: if it’s boring, build the scenes. If it’s improbable, build the sequels.
9. Motivation and reaction. A motivating stimulus occurs, a factor outside your character, and causes a reaction from within. These motivation-reaction (MR) units are what carry your story forward. Emotional reactions need to be presented sequentially: feeling into action into speech. This pattern of emotion represents an increase of control for the character. Feeling is impulse, action is choice and speech a considered step. One of the stages, if obvious, can be left out on the page. But it’s there in the reader’s mind.
10. The words you use. Bring images, sounds, tastes, scents and feelings to life with vivid use of words. To achieve vivid use of words, your two key tools are nouns and verbs. Nouns should be specific, concrete and definite, while verbs must be active. The verb ‘to be’ is weak because it’s static. Cut ‘to be’ forms every chance you can, and avoid the past perfect ‘had been, hadn’t done’ wherever possible. Active description can sidestep adverbs and be sparing with adjectives. Making a comparison to another image (metaphor or similie) is an excellent device for achieving vividness.