Each scene or chapter in your story should have some kind of tipping point where a decision is made. How can you use these to make give your characters more agency and drive the story?
Hello, folks. I’m now about halfway through the first draft of the third Witches of Woodville book, and I’m still in that muddy middle, that middle act where it’s so important that we writers try not to get too bogged down by wondering what happens next. In previous videos I’ve talked about using theme as story fuel and writing with urgency so as not to bore the reader. And today I want to talk about the tipping points of scenes. And I was recently reading about this in John Badham’s book “On Directing”.
Badham is the director of such classic films as Saturday Night Fever, WarGames, Stakeout, The Hard Way. A really great director. And this book is a cracking read. I’ve no ambitions to direct film. I’ve directed short films many years ago, and have some idea of just how all consuming directing a feature film is. But as a writer, I like to get different perspectives on the creative process and this one’s been a really refreshing read. And in here, Badham talks about how he and the actors will often look for the tipping point of a scene.
He defines it as the most important dramatic moment in a scene. It’s the moment where, like a seesaw, the situation can tip in favour of one character or another. However, unlike a seesaw where the tipping point is usually in the middle, the tipping point of a scene comes very close to the end as the dramatic argument comes to a peak. And these dramatic arguments don’t have to be major turning points every time in the story. It can be something as simple as deciding where to go for coffee.
What is important is that the characters — and most often your protagonist — is the one making those decisions and driving the story. From the perspective of a director like Badham and the actors that he works with, they’ll spend time looking for the tipping point in the scene in order to underpin that moment. Now, for a film director, that means close ups, or making it clear to the viewer that an important decision is being made. It’s also important for them to identify the tipping point because after that decision has been made by the character… the scene is done. Decision made. Onto the next scene.
That’s not to say the tipping point should be rushed. Badham quotes the writer-director Elia Kazan, who says, “One thing I always do, and I think that’s important in film, is to stretch climaxes.” So don’t feel you have to rush these things. I mean, one extreme is… How many comedies you’ve seen where a character will argue over something, say, “I’m not going on a date with him. I’m definitely not going on a date with him. You can’t make me go on a date with him.”
There’s a beat. You can feel the tipping point as a decision is about… to… be… maaaaaaade. And then you cut to that same person on a date with “him”. And that’s how close to the end a tipping point can be. Coming back to Kazan’s remark about stretching climaxes. Think of all those spaghetti westerns where the gunslingers face off… Staring at one another, slowly reaching for their guns, waiting for someone to make a move. That’s really great tension, really gripping.
And you can have great fun drawing that out for as long as you can. So how does this help you as a writer? Well, first of all, it can really help you with your editing. If you’ve got a scene that’s running too long, then look for a potential tipping point to get out early. Or your scene might be missing a tipping point. Which case does it need one? Can you add one? Or does the fact that it doesn’t have a tipping point make the scene redundant?
Also, try and think of your entire story as a dramatic argument with a tipping point. The central dramatic argument — that’s the theme of your story — shouldn’t be resolved until the very end. Once it is, the story’s over. Roll credits. Turn the page. The end. I hope you found that useful. And until next time, happy writing.
The middle act of a story is where it can really start to lose its energy. So how can we keep writing with a sense of urgency that will keep the reader turning the page?
Hello, folks. As discussed last week, I’m still in the middle act of this novel, still in the muddy middle, and this is where a story can really start to lose its energy. So how can we keep writing with a sense of urgency that will keep the reader turning the page? I mean, part of the problem is our characters might not want to change. They might want everything just to stay the same, keep the status quo. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing for them to want.
But you, the author, have to be an Old Testament God and make it so that they don’t have any choice but to take action and change. Sometimes we can love a protagonist so much we don’t want any harm to come to them. Stuff that. Make their lives hell and do it with a big grin on your face. It’s often only by testing these characters that we really come to love them. We tell stories about people and those stories are about change.
A story where a character overcomes challenges to become a different person is often the most satisfying. Even in a series where the protagonist doesn’t change fundamentally — say a detective series where they’re solving different crimes with each story — that will have some important element of their personality challenged by the kind of crime they’re solving. Change is an essential element of both story and character. So ask yourself whose story is this and how do they change? And also that thing of keeping the status quo isn’t wanting nothing.
It’s a desire to keep things as they are. A stable, safe life, which is totally understandable, but it must be challenged, otherwise why are we reading this story? So, for example, once upon a time there was someone who was perfectly happy, didn’t do anything, stayed the same. The end. Contrast that with Once upon a time there was someone who was perfectly happy, but something threatened that happiness. And so they had to take steps to preserve that happiness.
But in the course of doing so, made discoveries that created a new balance and a new happiness in their life. The end. There’s also a crucial difference between an active and reactive protagonist. One seeks a change in their life and goes looking for a solution, and the latter has change thrust upon them and has no choice but to change. And one of the most important elements for a protagonist is agency, that is they are the ones who, when things go awry, do the difficult thing and make decisions that will mean there’s no turning back.
They can have mentors who advise them. But in the end, it’s the protagonist who takes action. Of course, this all comes with a big, chunky caveat. What I’m talking about here is very much a Western, European, Hero’s Journey, Monomyth way of storytelling. For contrast, if you look at stories from, say, Asian cultures, it can be very different and makes for really compelling storytelling. There’s a couple of wonderful Twitter threads by the brilliant writers, Malinda Lo and Aliette De Bodard on this.
Is it okay if the first draft of your novel or screenplay is a little rough? I like to think so. Here are few tips that will help you get to the end of a messy first draft, not least the one thing you should try and get right first time…
Hello, folks, when writing a first draft, is it OK if it’s, well… a little rough? I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know how to do it any other way. My first drafts are rough as sandpaper. And long ago I came to terms with the fact that I’ll probably rewrite a novel or script at least three, four or five times before it’s anything like as good as it needs to be. If this sounds like you, then rest assured you are not alone.
In over three hundred episodes of the Bestseller Experiment podcast, I’ve interviewed two, maybe three authors who are happy with their first drafts. The rest of us have to put up with the poor, wretched Frankenstein’s monsters that we will create out of pain and suffering. Here’s a question: with the first draft, what needs to be right and what can be fixed later? Well, what needs to be right? Well, none of it, really. I mean, it can be a complete disaster.
There’s a reason that first drafts are called — and apologies if you’re eating — first drafts are sometimes called vomit drafts. So please don’t overburden your first draft with your expectations. Nobody’s first draft will read like a published novel. The sooner you accept this, the more liberating it will be for your writing. I mean, I still stop myself and fix typos as I go, which is one of the reasons I’m writing more and more by hand, actually, because I scrub it out.
But if you can just burn through, and not look back, the chances of you finishing that first draft increase exponentially. You might be big outliner, but don’t feel that you need to slavishly stick to an outline, as that can create all sorts of problems, not least shoehorning your protagonist into situations simply because the Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat says so. Permit yourself the flexibility to change your story when writing. Be open to the story opportunities that will emerge as you get to know your characters.
So I’m currently working through my first draft of my next book now, and there are things that change and evolve in the characters in the story. And the temptation to go back and fix them now is really overwhelming. But… experience tells me that’s a rabbit hole that creates more problems than it solves. If you start tinkering with stuff back there, then you start second guessing stuff that you haven’t written yet, and you end up being dragged into a swirling vortex of despair.
And no one needs that. Not these days, especially. I simply leave myself a little note in the comments and I’ll focus on fixing it in the next draft, because my priority is to finish this first draft, because nothing is more important at this stage than finishing a draft. I can make fixes on the next pass to the one after that or the one after that.
Or… You get the idea. However, if you want to concentrate on one thing and get that right first time round, make it your protagonist. Your entire story hinges on their journey. So if you haven’t figured out what they want and how the journey would change them, then maybe take a second to suss that out. Start with the simple stuff. How do they start the story and how they change by the end? Some of you out there will have heard me say this a million times before, and I’m quoting screenwriter Craig Mazin here.
But if you can figure out how your protagonist goes from “this” to “the opposite of this”, then you have the through line and central dramatic argument of your story.
Now, of course, there are authors out there who write painstaking first drafts that are as good as ready for publication, but they are rare as hen’s teeth. So if you think your first draft is ace. Fantastic. Good for you. But please don’t be discouraged if you feel your first draft is lacking. I think 90 percent of writers out there will be with you in solidarity. You are not alone. I hope that was helpful. Happy writing. See you again soon.
The Druid at Thieves Holm is part three of The Miss Charlotte Quartet and is FREE to all subscribers of the Woodville Village Library Newsletter. CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP.
Parts one and two — I’ll See You In My Dreams and The Last Night of the Witchfinder — are also available completely free to all subscribers to the Woodville Village Newsletter, and all the stories are also available as MP3 audiobook downloads…
London, Autumn, 1744 Charlotte Southill slinks into Newgate Gaol to interrogate a thief before he is hanged. Only Wilmot Moor knows who has the scrap of paper with the ritual that will allow Charlotte to summon Time and discover the truth behind the mysterious girl in her dreams. Charlotte will travel from London to a tiny islet off the coast of John O’Groats where she will encounter the Druid at Thieves Holm. I waffle about it here, and there’s a brief clip of the audio edition, too…
Big thanks to Julian Barr for his editing skills, Claire Burgess for helping Araminta, Dominic Currie for the music, and Andy Bowden for the cover art.
I’ve just hit 22,000 words on my new novel, and this is where things can get a bit sticky. To make our way through the muddy middle of a novel, it helps to understand the basics of three-act structure, so here are a few pointers…
Hello, folks. It’s been a couple of weeks since the last update. Since then, I’ve had a haircut and my first vaccine and I’m just getting over the side effects…
I’m still using the same method to write the first draft of this book, so scribbling in a notebook one day, then switching to the laptop and bringing it to life the next. And it’s been working pretty well so far. I’ve just hit 22,000 words, which is about a quarter of the way through this book. I want it ultimately to be somewhere between 80- and 90,000 words tops. So I’m about to hit what is possibly the most difficult part of the novel.
The second act, the muddy middle. As I said in the first video, and I’ll pop a link below if you haven’t seen it: https://youtu.be/A9u0SFjv3N8 — openings are relatively easy. Everything’s exciting. The world is your oyster. But when you get to the end of the first act, your characters will have started making choices that have consequences. Story consequences. So how do you navigate this? Well, let’s take a moment to talk about the basics of structure. All stories have this in common: a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the three act structure at its simplest, used by the ancient Greeks in their storytelling, still used by Hollywood today.
Now, you may have read all sorts of fancy stuff about four-act, five-act, seven-act structures, pyramids, diagrams, all sorts of stuff. But in the end, it all comes down to these three essential beats: a beginning, a middle, and end. And why are we even talking about acts? We’re writing a novel. Well, this is largely because the language of theatre and screenwriting has seeped into the bigger conversation about narrative. But it really does help to think of your story in these terms, not least because an understanding of story structure will help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your writing and enhance your self-critical skills. Here’s a simple breakdown of how the acts work. So, Act One is all about the set up, and that’s what I basically just completed. I’ve introduced my main characters. The setting, the themes, the tone and the rules of the story are established. There will be some kind of incident that will trigger the story and set the protagonist on the path of the story. The First Act usually ends with a turning point that will launch Act Two. Act Two is all about confrontation. Your protagonist will be tested as they strive to achieve their goal, the action rises and rises, leading to a midpoint that then becomes a crisis. The final events of Act Two, which often herald disaster or certain failure for our hero, will trigger the events of Act Three. Act Three is all about resolution. The stakes are raised to the point where we think it’s going to end in disaster. But the protagonist will take the lessons learned by the tests of Act two and find a resolution. They will almost certainly have changed from the person they were in Act one. And that’s it. The building blocks of story.
You can apply this not only to your overall story, but to each chapter which will have its own beginning, middle and an end. So this is what I have ahead of me next. Act Two. This is where I test my characters like an Old Testament God making their lives increasingly difficult. The good news is I have a pretty good idea of how I want Act three and the ending to pan out. So I just need to bridge that gap with some fun shenanigans.
And if I get stuck, then I need to take a moment just to think thematically. I covered that in a previous video… https://youtu.be/vD64WDtWsV8
Again, I’ll pop a link below. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Hmm. I’ve just written a scene where they come to a door and I have only the vaguest idea of who is on the other side. So, yeah, we’ll see. It’s never easy. But here goes. There’ll be another update a couple of weeks and until then, happy writing.
Here are some tips for making the dialogue in your novel or screenplay feel real without the waffle…
Hello folks, one day to the haircut. Right, before that, let’s talk about dialogue. There’s a knack to writing dialogue, and some people have it, and others have to learn it. It’s a bit like playing an instrument. Some people can pick up a guitar and strum chords straight away. Other people, like me, need a little more practise, but that’s fine because soon we’ll all be playing Kumbayah in perfect rhythm.
Now, first thing with dialogue: maybe record yourself having a conversation with someone.
Make sure the other person knows for legal reasons, of course. Make it long enough to forget that you’re recording the conversation to avoid being too self-conscious, then transcribe the conversation. I did this with a friend of mine years ago, back when I first started writing plays, and it was amazing to know just how much waffle and repetition people speak before they actually get to the point. And we’ll discuss waffle in more detail in a moment.
Readers in reviews, they’ll say that they like their dialogue to feel naturalistic and real. But the trouble is, naturalistic and real is waffly, boring and distracting. The knack is to make it sound natural, while cutting out all the excess waffles.
Here are a few pointers; listen to others.
My cousin used to live tweet conversations he overheard on the bus to work and they were always hilarious with phrases that were absolute gems of dialogue. So whenever you hear a colourful exchange or phrase, jot it down in a notebook or your smartphone, you know, send it to yourself, keep a file of them somewhere. You may never use it, but doing this regularly will attune your ear to great dialogue. The more attuned you get, the better and more sparky your dialogue will be.
Cut the small talk.
Every now and then I hear someone complain that, “Oh, people in films never say hello when they pick up the phone. How rude.” There is a reason for that. We cut the unimportant stuff and get to the essence of the stuff that drives the story forward. This comes back to my point about naturalistic dialogue. I’ve literally had conversations that go like this: Mark, it’s your mum. How are you? Good. How are you and Dad? Oh, fine, fine, fine. Oh, good, good, good, good. That’s nice. Everything alright? Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s all fine. Lovely, lovely. Good, good. That’s great. That’s lovely. That’s great… Oh your Great uncle died… What!?
You could never get away with that in a novel, unless it was a comedy bit. But the thing is, small talk… If small talk is essential for a character, then maybe fold that into the descriptive prose, you know: Mum called. She made the usual small talk, then hit me with the news. “Mark, I’m sorry, but your great uncle died.”
Next tip: Say it out loud.
I highly recommend talking to yourself. Write the first pass of your dialogue as freely and waffly as you like, go full naturalistic if you want, and then cut out all the fat. How to identify waffle and fat? Well, yeah, you’ve heard of the phrase chewing the fat? Apparently, this comes from small talk that sailors would make when chewing on salt hardened fat while they worked. This kind of chit chat that passed the time, you know. But as authors, we’re not passing the time with idle gossip.
We need to grip the reader. So our dialogue needs to do three things:
One: Move the story forward. Any exchange of dialogue needs to bring us closer to the end. Asking about the weather won’t necessarily do this.
Two: it needs to reveal character. Does your dialogue give us any insight into the character’s feelings and motivations?
Three: Build relationships. Does the dialogue create a dynamic that helps the reader understand relationships? For example, a father might yell at his kids, but be meek around his boss. That tells us something about him. If your dialogue doesn’t meet these criteria, then prepare the cutting snippers, because that dialogue might need to go. And you can get messy.
OK, so while we’re avoiding all the small talk, we can still sound naturalistic with interruptions, overlapping, half-finished thoughts, stammering… All these and more can help make your characters sound distinct.
Now, a quick word on slang, jargon and patois.
Use it very, very sparingly, especially when writing outside of your own experience. There’s nothing more likely to make the reader cringe than, say, a white person writing Jamaican patois, for example.
Some of you might have read the novel I co-wrote, Back to Reality. There’s an Italian character in that, Federica, who has a very distinct way of speaking. But we kept any overt Italian-isms to an absolute minimum to stop her sounding like Super Mario. We also gave it to an Italian friend to read to make sure we weren’t going to be banned from the country for life. You just need a tiny sprinkle of slang, patois to let the reader know the speech patterns, and they’ll hear the voice in their head and create their own accent and rhythm. You know, if you start emphasising it in every sentence of dialogue, it’s just too much. When it comes to jargon — military, police, scientific tech talk, doctors, things like that — use just enough to be authentic and avoid characters telling each other stuff they already know. You know, you get, “As you know, Dr. Smith, we make an incision here…” Use your prose to let the reader know just enough to add two plus two.
Again, I know it’s easier said than done, but it comes with practise. You have to keep the voices distinct as well. How can you stop characters from all sounding the same, or sounding like you? It’s important to make characters distinct. And a fun exercise is to remove all of the dialogue tags in an exchange and see if you can tell who’s saying what. Maybe give it to someone else to read and see if they can tell the difference.
This is where you need to get in character. If you find a character’s dialogue is bland, then, as an exercise, write the scene from their first person point of view, think about any moments of hesitation, frustration, what they really want to say, as opposed to what they actually say, how they hear the voice of others in that exchange. Do they find some people annoying, grating? Are they in a position of power in this scene, or are they having to watch what they say in order to get what they want?
Also, think about word choice. Do they use short, abrupt phrases? Or are they verbose and erudite? Do they use any slang, do they swear ten to the dozen? Think about their background and their world. You know, a working class docker will have very different dialogue to a nun… She’ll swear more for a start. Once you’ve done that, I think you’ll find it easier to write in their voice when it comes to dialogue. And have a think about subtext. You know, having characters blurt out exactly what they mean can be effective.
But mostly we should work with subtext:
Dialogue that defelcts, defends and skirts can be really engaging. Saying exactly what’s on your mind can have terrible consequences. You know, only the cold hearted tell their boyfriend or girlfriend that they want to break up. You know, characters that feel real will do everything they can to avoid delivering bad news. No one likes that. Or they will tailor what they say to the social situation.
Body language is also your friend.
We pick up so many clues from body language that it’s important to pair dialogue with descriptions of your character’s posture and mannerisms. Something like, “That’s so helpful. Thank you.” Delivered with a shake of the hand and a smile, is very different to, “That’s so helpful. Thank you.” Delivered with pursed lips and a withering glare. And tension. Thinking about subtext and body language brings me to how dialogue can build tension. Tension in a story comes from unanswered questions. Will he propose? Will she say yes? And dialogue can really help drive that tension and resolve it. Make every word count, keep the story moving forward, and keep the reader on the hook, which is easier said than done, of course. Well, I hope that was helpful.
Hello, folks, apologies again for the lockdown hair. Two weeks to go. Let’s talk about theme. Sometimes, if you ask writers about the theme of their story, they’ll probably give you a one word reply like: family, war… Chickens.
Okay, probably not chickens, but it’s usually something monolithic. Some writers might not know the theme of their work-in-progress at all. And that’s fine because there are times when, you know, I don’t figure out what it is until I finish a draft. But, the sooner you can figure out what your theme is, the better. Because the theme, my friends, is story fuel. We’ll come back to that. First of all, what is theme exactly? Well, first of all, theme is not “an idea”.
Anyone can have an idea. Drunk uncles stagger up to me at barbecues and say, “I got a great idea for a book and you can write it for me”. No? It’s just me? Okay. Anyway, the point is: ideas are two-a-penny and they are not the theme. An idea is: a man dresses up as a bat to fight crime. The theme can change with every man bat story. Your theme is the central dramatic argument of your story.
It’s the question that the story and its characters will interrogate from the beginning, through the middle, and right to the end. And that’s the key to figuring out what your theme is: make it a question. Imagine that your book has been published and it’s being read by a book group. What’s the main topic of conversation for that book? What’s the big question that they will be asking? And here’s the thing. It doesn’t have to be earth shattering or original.
It just needs to be a little bit tricky to answer. So going back to our Man Bat example… the theme for that might be: can a man fight crime and not become a criminal himself? It’s the age old question of vigilantism, and it’s a good one. One that has fuelled all kinds of very different stories for time immemorial. So, how is theme story fuel? Well, we all get stuck when writing. And I find that if I know what my theme is, I’m much more likely to find a solution when I’m wondering what happens next.
So, for example, in my current book, the big overarching theme is: are we stronger together or on our own?
Now, as an old liberal lefty, I’m all for unity and working with others. But there are times when we need to strike out on our own. And when I’m working on the story, and wondering what happens next, I ask, how can I present this dilemma and dramatise it in the story? How can I divide my united characters? Or how can I take someone who works alone and make them realise that they might need help? All good stuff. You really should give it a try.
It really does. The screenwriter Craig Mazin, who wrote Chernobyl and many other things goes into this in greater detail in Episode 403 of the Scriptnotes podcast, and how it ties into protagonist’s story of change. And it’s really good stuff. I think the episode is behind a paywall now, but you can check out the transcript online. I’ll pop a link below. Well, I hope that was useful, and happy writing.
I’ve been working on a new way of writing the first draft of my novel. And it’s been working really well… so far…
Hello, folks. Apologies for the hair. Still in lockdown and two weeks till I get a haircut, so this is going to get worse before it gets better. Anyway, I’m working on the first draft of Skyclad, the third Witches of Woodville book.
Regulars will know that I used to be a big outliner when it came to writing, but I’m becoming more and more of a pantser or discovery writer, whatever you want to call it.
That is, I’m making it up as I go along. Well, sort of. I do have a rough idea of where I’m going and I know how I want the story to end. And I have a few key notes on a few key moments, but I thought you might be interested to know how I’m working with this one. Again, regulars might know that I have a different notebook dedicated to each project. Here’s the one for Book Three of the witches of Woodville, Skyclad.
This was bought at the National Trust Gift Shop at the White Cliffs of Dover, which is a little clue as to where some of the book will take place. What I’ve taken to doing with this story is switching from day to day between paper — the notebook — and the screen — the laptop — and it’s really working for me. So to give you some idea… On, say, Monday, I will start noodling ideas for what happens next in the story in The Notebook.
So here I’ve written in big letters, “How can the Poltergeist exorcism go wrong?” Slight spoiler, but it’s the opening scene. I’ve made notes on what can happen in that scene and they are imperfect notes. I’ve given myself permission to wander off, and noodle and try different scenarios, and scribble stuff out, and put other things in boxes and underline them, and highlight them. And what I find is that by the end of the writing session, I have a really good idea of how that chapter pans out.
The level of detail varies from session to session. But the next day, Tuesday, when I open up the laptop, I’m not victim to the tyranny of the blinking cursor. You know that feeling when you look at a blank page of Word or Scrivener that bastard cursor is flashing at you, “Go on, write something. What are you waiting for? Call yourself a writer?” Well, now I just go to my notes and start typing, and before I know it I’m up and running. I used the less formalised version of this with The Crow Folk and the second book, Babes in the Wood, available to pre-order now.
And it worked really well. So this is an evolution of that. A few caveats. I’m only 10,000 words into this novel and, in my experience, openings are pretty easy when compared to the rest of the book… not least the middle section, which can lead to much wailing and gnashing of teeth. So I’ll check in with this in about a month’s time and see if I’m feeling quite so smug still. Also, I’m writing the third book in a series.
I know the characters and situations really well. I have a very good idea of how people will react when presented with challenges. And that makes a writer’s life much, much easier and makes me wonder why it’s taken me so long to write a series. This is so much fun. Anyway, I hope you found that helpful. How is your writing going? Does this sort of method work for you? Pop a comment below or drop me a line. In the meantime, happy writing.