Sunday, October 9, 2011

5 Ways to Subconsciously Improve Writing

Motivation isn’t just about getting yourself to get out of bed. A complex web of desire, cost, reward, and probability factors into every action we make. Writers and actors talk about how every character “wants” something, if it’s even just a glass of water, but it goes deeper than that.

Bad acting in the theatre is often hard to hear and not just due to poor volume and articulation. It’s because the majority of understanding is taken from tone and body language. When lying, pretending, or attempting to hide a motivation, a person still gives many tells as to their true meaning. A thespian may be crying on stage, but if she’s trying to show off her talent, it’s going to read like she’s trying to show off her talent. If her cadence and intention is wrong, the audience’s comprehension goes out the door.

Now, before I go on, I must emphasis what I am about to say here are not absolute rules that everyone should always follow if they ever want to be great. These aren’t even suggestions; they’re exercises. It’s an interesting way to learn about a writer’s “subconscious,” which, despite even the most vigorous of planners attempts, will affect work in many ways. Thinking about these things can change standard, good writing, to unique, good writing.

The best way to get better at the arts is to change the mindset, or the way the creator looks at things. Altering the way one views his story gives him a new perspective and highlights those pesky times in which his motivation makes it obvious “that this is fiction.”

Which brings us to…

1. Pretending it’s not fiction

When a reader scans a book, he can tell, without the cover or summary, the genre. If it’s nonfiction, if it’s a sequel, if it’s a positive story or tension-filled. We make choices every step of the way that give away our genuine intentions, so it’s not uncommon that amateur writing comes from the writer being too honest.

Knowing it’s pretend makes the author write like it’s pretend.

The style changes are subtle, so subtle that it’s hard to make the conscious choice to change the aspects of a “fiction story” by just pinpointing the exact moments and fixing them. Instead, if the writer truly believes what he’s saying, even only temporary, he’s more likely to sound like he’s telling the truth rather than making it up.

When “cutting” a work, thinking of the characters as real people who hold a million experiences helps clarify what’s actually a part of the story.

If real-life Jenna’s bragging to her friends how she threw soup at her date, she’s not going to start from bell-ring to when she went to sleep at night. She might, but even the most monotonous of people will have to cut out some events from the two hour dinner. Otherwise, the story would take two hours.

Every time someone relates something that happened to them, they edit the story to get the most laughs. She cuts out the parts that don’t matter—the listener only cares what he’s wearing when they find it was a 100 dollar suit that she threw tomato soup down—and she naturally give the details that either foreshadow events, up the stakes, or prove her point. We are innate story tellers, until we start thinking like we’re telling a story.

It’s the best way to help decide if an author wants to cut something or not. In fiction, everything written happened and so it’s a part of the story. In nonfiction a lot more happened, and none of its part of the story.

2. Know Who’s Telling the Story

If someone walked up to her friend and started some gossip, she would not say, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” She’d probably start, “Guess what I just heard?”

There’s the tendency to try to write “neutral.” A lot of authors want to lay out the world for their readers and let them decide what to think about things. How it usually ends up is what I call, “Learning to Read” language:

“He walked into the small, white room and sat down on a chair. His hair was black, his suit brown, his eyes blue.”

The more complicated words used, the more opinionated they are.

“He sauntered into the cramped, bleached out room and slid into a chair. His hair a shiny black, his rich suit a deep brown, his focused eyes matching the sea.

He appears more slick in the second one, and maybe, from the description of the room, pompous. The “narrator” has an opinion on the man and the location. Depending on whether or not the reader views the “cramped” description as the man’s point of view or a story teller, it nevertheless has a connotation to it. The first gives a visual with no conflict. The second starts to hint at the problems.

Knowing who is telling the story adds another dimension to it. It helps with voice and style, gives it an atmosphere, and, most importantly, adds to a character’s well-roundedness.

A story is being told. We like to think that, for a time, the reader has dropped down into the world and is visiting it to soon leave. But, as we don’t know who that reader is, that’s a hard idea to truly create.

This is not a suggestion to add a narrator in the sense that it should be told from first person. Deciding who is telling the story and why merely gives the author a little more play room.

A nondescript person just talking forces the events to hold up their weight. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and in some cases, what one wants. But, if it’s not the specific goal, having an opinionated person really can help the story.

For one, it adds conflict without conflict being necessary in the scene. Making the narrator hate the main character allows for more calm moments. With descriptions like, “Then the idiot signed the check,” a nonchalant business transaction can suddenly be funny.

As for atmosphere, imaging that the story is being told around a fire by an old man to a group of young children can naturally change word choice into being more mystical. Picturing the scene causes the author to instinctively play along.

If you hate the way your stories turn out, or they’re just way different than pictured, it’s probably the atmosphere that’s bothering you. Knowing who’s opinion the description is based on can tell a lot about the problem—If it’s supposed to be mystical and it’s cold, pretending that a prophet is telling the story makes it read less like a fiction novel and more like a world.

3. Know the “Theme”

Theme being more like the way one decorates a room than the “moral” specifically. Every story has a motive. The author is always looking for agreement with something. This is a fact, and it is important. When the audience doesn’t know what the author is trying to say, they don’t understand “the point.”

What the author is getting at could be as simple as, “Isn’t he flippin’ awesome?” When the reader understands that, she’s happy. It could be as deep as, “The problem of the rebellion in Africa is destroying people’s lives. Don’t you think people should be aware?” Either way, the “theme” is still there.

Knowing the “confirmation” tightens up plot. It prevents diverging onto different subjects. If the point is, “He’s flippin’ awesome,” then it shouldn’t talk for twenty pages about the servant’s love-strife, unless the bad ass comes in and solves it all. Or did the servant’s wife and caused the problem.

But, more importantly, knowing the story’s point enables easier decision making.

I say theme in the decorative sense because when one is designing a room, she has a “key” to go back to. She knows everything needs to be blue or white or silver, and things with all three are even better.

When an author has a scene that ends in a bang but starts out calmly, he may have a problem of “keeping the calm” long enough to for the ending to mean anything. Now he needs to know what kind of information he can add to still make the scene important besides just the “Pop.” Or perhaps he can’t decide whether or not to delete a part. Or he can’t decide how to raise the stakes. Or he needs a Magoffin to hide something that will be important later.

When he knows the point of the story, making decisions like this becomes easier. You’re writing Twilight and you want a scene to show how Edward is secretly into Bella, but he’s trying to hide it. So they’re talking about nothing. If the “theme” of Twilight was even the most typical of people can lead extraordinary lives—I know it isn’t, but just bear with me—then their small talk might be oriented around her plans for the future, and how she’s already settled for being a waitress.

Having a core essence to go back to can really help make decisions easier and crisp up the narrative.

4. Write for Someone Specific

This one is simple. The author is writing a romance novel, but she wants the male lead to be likeable for men. Her response is likely to be to write for the “hypothetical guy.”

This is a mistake. We as Americans view the average hypothetical person as dumber, meaner, and more boring than the average person we know. We dehumanize imaginary beings, give them no personality other than vague stereotypes, and, essentially, look down on them. If you picture a “dumb blonde” in your head, you have a very distinct idea of how that person is. Now, if you think of someone that you know who is blonde and you think is dumb, they’re not a dumb blonde. It’s not the same visual.

When a writer wants to be interesting, the best bet is to write for himself. We’re not all as unique as we’d like to pretend to be, so if he managed to create the perfect book for himself, then there’s someone else out there who will really like it.

However, this, of course, is not always what we want. Sometimes we’re aiming towards those who are not in our demographic. Stephanie Meyer was not aiming towards the vampire crowd, nor was she a part of it. And, if she had been, she probably would have been sorely disappointed. On the whole, vampire lovers are more likely to hate the book than those who hadn’t been interested pre-Twilight.

When writing for a child or another gender, or a character in a demographic for that demographic to like, pick someone. Imaging how my brother would like a character gives me much more of a direction than picturing how “a man” would like the character. It also doesn’t let me off as easy.

To see what I mean by letting off easy, try this: Next time you’re debating whether or not a work is good, first picture how a hypothetical crowd would like it then picture how the greatest cynic that you know would. When dealing with the vague, we tend to put wishful thinking on the unknown. The crowd might like it, but you know exactly the parts the cynic is going to hate. Always go with the more concrete.

5. Base around Reality

Two characters must break into a prison to save their friend. The author comes up with a plan. The plan works, because they essentially “luck out” seeing how they have a preverbal god hanging over their shoulder. If this was reality, would the author really believe that just donning a prison guard’s outfit and walking into Alcatraz be that simple? Trying to pass the story off as nonfiction puts pressure on the author to make it reasonable that two peasants could storm a castle. He can’t lean on the idea that, “Well, it’s a different world, so it was easier back then.” He comes up with something more creative that makes the audience admire the characters even more—They did it without “divine” intervention of just dumb luck.

Even in the most fantastic worlds, having an anchor on a historical or personal aspect can add immensely to it. Picturing people as real people and places as real locations adds details that give the story concreteness.

When having a hard time writing a portion of a story or reading a part of a work that isn’t right, the author can look to something real to add another dimension to it.

Perhaps the reason why the Military War Room Scene is so ridiculous is it’s not defined enough. Going to a real military base (which can be difficult without actually enrolling), or even a hospital or some bureaucratic station grants senses and details the writer wouldn’t have thought about before. Knowing how a man in uniform makes you feel, knowing how a place smells, seeing the height of the ceilings and the state of their inboxes gives a great deal of atmosphere that someone who’s never experienced it before may not realize.

Taking something vague and giving it the “Method Acting” touch can help an author who wants to fix his atmosphere.

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