Writing Tip of the Week: A Cinematic Writing Assignment

What’s your favorite movie?  What makes that particular film stand out from the rest of the millions that exist?  What is it about that story, its characters, or its themes that left an impression on you?

Time to do a little homework.

I know, I know.  Homework.  Booooooring!  I get it.  But, this is creative homework.  This is your chance to do a deep dive into your favorite film and get to the heart of why it affects you and why you enjoy it.  In turn, this exercise will help you as a writer by giving insight into how they create a compelling story, how they utilize storytelling structure, and how they create compelling characters.

What You Need

  • Grab a notepad or legal pad and a pen or pencil.
  • A copy of your favorite movie.
  • Your Analytical Cap.
  • Good Pause Button skills (you’ll be using this a lot).

Think of yourself as a story archaeologist.  Your mission is to unearth the storytelling secrets hidden beneath the surface of the film you chose.  

Viewing #1

I know it’s your favorite, but as you go through this first time, write down your favorite moments and note at what time or on what page number they occur.  Was it a plot point that intrigued you?  A clever line of dialogue?  A character moment?  Write it down and write down why you reacted the way you did to that element.

Do this for the whole movie, then read back through what you observed.

Viewing #2

This round is all about the story.  In one or two sentences, write down what happens in each scene that moves the story forward.  What’s the main conflict in each scene?  You can number the scenes or write a general location of where the scene takes place.

If scenes are revolving around a sub-plot, see how that smaller story is resolved or if it dovetails into the main story.

By the end, you should be able to go back through your notes and see the primary story arc evolve throughout the film.  Does each scene feed into the next?  Do you notice a pattern as to when the story has significant changes?  

All screenplays have a basic story structure.  There are dozens of ways to break down that structure, but for the purposes of this exercise, I’ll refer you to The Syd Field Paradigm below:

If the screenwriter did their job correctly, these elements should be crystal clear and easy to identify as you review your notes.  Highlight or underline what you feel these moments are.

Viewing #3

This final round is all about character.  Your job is to watch how the main character changes over the course of the story.  What traits do they have at the start of the story?  Do they become a better person or a worse person by the end?  

This is another scene-by-scene breakdown.  Write down in a couple sentences what the main character is doing, how they’re acting, what you feel their motivation or conflict is in the scene.  As you go through, you should be able to see their discernable character arc as they navigate their way through the ups and downs of the plot.  How does the story impact who they are as a character?  How do they impact the events of the story?  

Read back through and see if you can clearly identify when the writer began to make changes in the character and how those changes altered the main character by the end of the story.

So, What Did We Learn?

So, now you’ve watched your favorite film three more times and have done some digging into its inner workings.  By breaking the movie into its basic components, you have a clearer picture of how this screenwriter crafted a compelling story with an interesting main character.  You can see where the story beats are, where the direction of the story changes, and how those elements either impact the main character’s arc or how their arc impacts the story.

Keep this exercise in mind when you finish a draft of your screenplay, play, or novel.  If you were to sit down and do this exercise with your work, could you summarize what’s happening in each scene in a sentence or two?  Would those sentences be enough to show the main story’s arc throughout the narrative?  Does your main character evolve over the course of the story?  What happens to cause the change from start to finish?

Consider doing this exercise with your own work to help you strengthen your story and main character in your different drafts.

Extra Credit

Now, if you enjoyed that exercise, why not try it with a movie you strongly dislike?  I know it can be hard to stomach a film you can’t stand, but take the emotion out and look at it from an analytical perspective. 

The first time through, write down all the elements you dislike and why.  If anything does work for you, write it down.

The second and third viewings should be done similar to the ones stated above.  You may find that the story arc and/or main character arc are weak and lacking in a lot of ways.

How would you, as this film’s screenwriter, fix these weaknesses?  When you read back through, brainstorm what you would have done to make the story and character elements stronger and more effective.

You can learn a lot from both good and bad films by breaking their stories down into their component parts.  I highly recommend reading screenplays for films as well.  Screenplays give you the nuts and bolts of story and character without the distraction and spectacle so you can analyze things even more in-depth.  I recommend checking out the link below to find screenplays to break down and analyze.

Happy writing and analyzing. I’ll see you next week!

Writing Tip of the Week: What POV is Best for Your Story?

The point-of-view, or POV your story is told from, can impact how you present the story and how readers experience it.  Through this chosen perspective, we decide how much information will be delivered to the audience throughout the story and how they’re meant to process and use that information as the story unfolds.  

Here are the four POVs generally used in fiction.

First-Person

Everything we are learning and experiencing during the story is told from the point of view of the main character.  They are literally our eyes and ears to the story, other characters, and their opinions influence how we as readers understand the world being presented.

EXAMPLE:  I walked down the long, dark hallway.  Cobwebs brushed across my face, which sent a chill up my spine and my heart rate to increase.  I moved toward two doors: a blue door to my left and a red door to my right.

Most novels that are written in first-person stay in first-person the entire time.  A few exceptions are in the case of novelist Nelson DeMille. His main characters tell the story in first-person, while the antagonist’s chapters are in third-person limited.

Second-Person

Most of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s recall the Choose Your Own Adventure book series.  These were books written in the second-person and used “You” throughout the story.

EXAMPLEYou walk down a long, dark hallway.  Cobwebs lightly brush across your face as you move toward two doors: a blue one on the left and a red one on the right.

This was followed by: If you open the red door, turn to the next page.  If you open the blue door, turn to page 38.

I don’t often see this POV outside of this particular genre. Still, it’s a unique way to literally get your reader into the main character’s shoes by making them the main character.

Third-Person Limited

With this point-of-view, you can be inside the head of one character at a time.  You can have them share their inner thoughts and feelings with the reader; you can give us private moments with them.  But once you’re in their head, you must stay in their head until there is a clear designation that we are now moving into another character’s POV.  This could be a break in the action using a symbol if the switch happens in a chapter, or at the start of a new chapter.  

Just make sure the switch is clear.

EXAMPLE:  David walked down the long, dark hallway.  He felt cobwebs brush across his face, which sent a chill up his spine and caused his heart rate to increase.  This was a bad idea, he thought, as he moved toward two doors: a blue one on his left and a red one on his right.

XXX

Seth knew David would pick the blue door.  After all, it was David’s favorite color, and Seth was certain that David would pick the right door and see the surprise party waiting behind it.

This POV is common in novels today. It’s less limiting than first-person or second-person. It allows you to explore the inner thoughts of multiple characters. Just make sure that it’s clear when you do the switch.

Third-Person Omniscient

 This POV allows us to explore internal and external aspects of different characters without the restraints of a first-person, second-person, or third-person limited point-of-view.  In this context, Omniscient means “having infinite awareness, understanding, and insight.” The narrator gives details and information about multiple characters’ pasts, their motivations, and their personalities since this narrator can be wherever they want to be.

For example, suppose there’s a chapter with a party. In the Omniscient POV, we can go from person to person and learn about them without abruptly changing points-of-view to a character who might know that person better or to the point-of-view of the character being focused on.  With Omniscient, we can give the reader any information about any character as it’s needed.

EXAMPLEDavid walked down the long, dark hallway.  He felt cobwebs brush across his face, which sent a chill up his spine and caused his heart rate to increase.  This was a bad idea, he thought, as he moved toward two doors: a blue one on his left and a red one on his right.

Seth awaited David’s choice behind the blue door, knowing he would pick the blue door since blue was David’s favorite color.  Seth couldn’t wait for David to open the door and see the surprise party waiting for him.

This POV also enables the narrator to tell the reader things that the characters may not even be aware of that could impact them in the future.  It also allows the narrator to give the reader insight into something they need to know to contextualize the story.

An excellent example of this is the opening chapter of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  Steinbeck takes the time to introduce the reader to the world of The Great Depression in Oklahoma, giving us details that clue us in to what’s happening without introducing any of the main characters.  Now, we’re up to speed on what’s going on, so when we do meet the Joad family, we’re more acclimated to their dire circumstances.

Read the first chapter here:   https://genius.com/John-steinbeck-chapter-1-the-grapes-of-wrath-annotated

Definition Sourcehttps://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/omniscient

Which One Is Right for Your Story?

In the early stages of your writing, play around with the different POVs and see which one might work best for the story you want to tell.  Do you need to have the reader know the story from varied points of view?  Then Third-Person Limited or Omniscient might be good choices.  Does your main character’s worldview dominate the story?  Perhaps the First-Person POV is a good fit.

Taking the time to nail this down early will prevent rewrite headaches later on.  Write a draft of the same section of the story in the different POVs and see which one feels suitable for the story you want to tell.

Happy writing, and I’ll see you next week!

Writing Tip of the Week: Getting into Character

A story needs compelling and engaging characters that change throughout the narrative to keep readers/viewers engaged with the events unfolding before them.  No matter who the character is, it’s essential as a writer to have a strong sense of who they are and where they were before the events of the story you are creating.  Let’s look at a few ways you can do this in the pre-writing phase of your project.

Basic Stats

One of the easiest methods of getting to know your characters is to bullet-point the basics about them.  Name. Age.  Profession.  A few significant events that affected their lives before the story.  Personality traits.  Relationships with others.  Writing these down and having them as a reference can help ensure that characters have continuity throughout your story.

Obviously, you want your protagonist to have a strong arc that allows them to evolve over the course of the story.  But their past and present circumstances aid in dealing with the conflicts set before them and how they reconcile and move on as a character at the conclusion of the story.

I recommend doing this for the protagonist and antagonist and other key characters that are a main part of the story.

Character Biographies

A significant step-up from what I mentioned above is creating detailed and in-depth character bios for your protagonist, antagonist, and other key players in your story.  Create a 500-word essay about your characters, detailing their lives in an A&E Biography manner.  This gives you more creative latitude than the bullet-point method but is more time-consuming.  

This is ideal for historical fiction since you can do the research to find out more about the time period, social structure, environment, clothing, and other key factors that will make your historical novel more accurate.

Backstory Not Included

Should your Stats and Bios be used liberally in your novel or merely as reference material?  The lawyerly answer: It depends.  If what is happening in the story is directly affected by past events in the character’s life, I would definitely mention the relevant elements.  But don’t just do an info dump.  Weave relevant aspects of their past into the narrative or dialogue. 

The reader/viewer must feel that this character existed before the story they are now experiencing.  Your characters shouldn’t begin and end when the current story does.  They should feel like real, active people being observed during a particularly eventful and life-altering time in their lives.

How Did They Get Here?

Our past life experiences influence how we deal with the present.  The same is true for fictional characters.  Who was Tony Stark before he became Iron Man?  Who was Jack Torrance before the events at the Overlook Hotel in The Shining?  What was Starr Carter’s world like before the events in The Hate U Give?  

Dr. Phil has a useful tool that can aid you with these questions in both your own life and in the lives of your characters.  He breaks it down into what he calls The 10/7/5 Philosophy.  Even if you aren’t a fan of Dr. Phil, this method is an excellent tool for getting creating greater depth in your characters:

Ten Defining Moments: In every person’s life, there have been moments, both positive and negative, that have defined and redefined who you are. Those events entered your consciousness with such power that they changed the very core of who and what you thought you were. A part of you was changed by those events, and caused you to define yourself, to some degree by your experience of that event.

Seven Critical Choices: There are a surprisingly small number of choices that rise to the level of life-changing ones. Critical choices are those that have changed your life, positively or negatively, and are major factors in determining who and what you will become. They are the choices that have affected your life up to today and have set you on a path.

Five Pivotal People: These are the people who have left indelible impressions on your concept of self, and therefore, the life you live. They may be family members, friends or co-workers, and their influences can be either positive or negative. They are people who can determine whether you live consistently with your authentic self, or instead live a counterfeit life controlled by a fictional self that has crowded out who you really are. 

Source:  https://www.drphil.com/advice/defining-your-external-factors/

Your characters are the true lifeblood of your story.  They are the ones we care about, empathize with, and follow on their journey as they traverse the hills and valleys of the narrative unfolding before them.  It’s important to take the time to get to know your characters’ history, so you can better understand how they react to their present circumstances.  Then, you can use that information to evolve them into their future selves.

Happy writing, and I’ll see you next week!

Writing Tip: Ideas in Action

Ideas.  We all have them.  Billions of people all around the planet have ideas every day.  Some good.  Some bad.  Some brilliant.  Some ridiculous.  From kids to the elderly, ideas are racing through the minds of people 24/7.  But what are they doing with them?

A coworker of mine used to pitch me several game show ideas a week.  And every time, I would tell him to write them down.  He never did.  Just kept coming up with them week after week.  But what if he had written them down?  What if one of them had actually been an idea worth exploring further?

If you think of an idea, write it down.  You can use a notebook, the Notes app on your phone, or a computer file.  Sounds simple enough.  But most people don’t take the time to do this.

And they need to.

There are tens of millions of creative people out there. Still, most don’t take the time to write down their ideas and cultivate the good ones into possible stories.

Having an idea is easy.  Building on an idea is the hard part.

Good ideas deserve action.  If you have a story idea that intrigues you, something that makes you pause and wonder what happens next, this is the time to act and get to work.  The biggest mistake is to let the idea dissolve into memory, only to be forgotten and never expanded upon.

Sit down and take the time to brainstorm and hash out the idea’s finer points and details.  Possible characters, conflicts, locations.  How the story begins.  How it ends.  Is there something compelling for you to continue the journey to make it more than an simple idea?

If so, continue.  If not, move on but don’t throw any of those notes away.  You never know when something from one idea could be merged into another.  It happens.

An idea is actionable when you decide for it to be.  No one can stop you from developing what you’ve thought of into a more dimensional creative work.

The ideas start and stop with you.  It is your choice what to do with them.  

Choose action.  

Happy writing, and I’ll see you next week!

Today’s the Day! Get Midnight House by Ian Dawson NOW!

I’m excited to announce that Midnight House by Ian Dawson is now available on all platforms today! Buy now on BookBaby, Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, and Target.com!

Amazon eBook links below!

Click below to buy the Midnight House eBook on Amazon!

Or…

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Or, you can…

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The Road to Midnight House: An Author’s Journey – Part Five

Last week, I talked about getting feedback, finalizing your manuscript, and getting it ready to publish. In this final post about the process of publishing Midnight House, I wanted to touch on the indie publishing process, marketing, and other aspects of getting your manuscript out in a professional form.

Let’s get started!

To Self-Publish, or Not to Self-Publish…

Your hard work has paid off. You have written, edited, and copyrighted your manuscript and are ready to move to the next step: publication. Here, you can go one of two ways: traditional publishers or independent publishing.

If you go the traditional route, you’ll want to craft an eye-catching query letter that hooks the reader, and hopefully, you get a request for your manuscript to be sent for review.  

If you go the independent publishing route, you are in control of the publishing process.  

I went independent for several reasons with The Field and Midnight House:

  • The novels are professionally published in both eBook and paperback form for sale and distribution;
  • The books are sold in the same online marketplaces as traditionally published works (Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, etc.);
  • I have the same access to social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, personal website) as other authors.

Now, the downside, of course, is that it does cost money to self-publish. I recommend you do your research and find a publishing company that fits your needs and your budget. Many have packages for just eBooks or for an eBook/paperback bundle.  

I cannot stress this enough: Make sure if you invest the money to self-publish that you have a plan in place to pay yourself back via your 9 to 5 or other income. Being an independent author is great, but don’t expect to make Stephen King money with your first novel.

Author Dan Brown had written three novels before the DaVinci Code. After that hit big, the other three became bestsellers.

Be patient, keep writing, and don’t get discouraged.

Sometimes You Should Judge a Book By Its Cover…Especially If It’s Yours

If you do decide to self-publish, many publishing companies offer in-house cover art services. If you wish to seek out your own cover artist that fits your stylistic needs, I recommend checking out my post on the topic, Finding a Cover Artist.

It’s a Team Effort, But You’re Coach

Once you’ve taken the leap to publish independently, keep in mind that you are the boss. You are in control and give final approval to every aspect of the publishing process. It’s essential to be engaged, respond quickly to any questions the publisher may have, and don’t be afraid to ask any and all questions before and during the process. This is a financial investment on your part, so making sure things are exactly as you want them to be is critical.

I highly recommend keeping all correspondence upbeat and positive with everyone you are working with throughout the process. As Team Coach, you set the tone, and you have to make sure all parties involved stay focused and motivated to create a great final product. If you have issues with something, inquire nicely—no need to be an egomaniac or a jerk. Everyone has the same goal: to get your novel professionally published and out to the world.

When each step is complete, take the time to email those who helped you and thank them for their hard work and assistance. A little professional courtesy can go a long way, especially if you plan to use the same cover artist or publisher again in the future.

Have I Got a Novel for You!

Marketing starts with you. You control the message. You control what people initially know about your book. You are the point-person when it comes to getting the word out. 

Utilize your social media and let people know you have a novel coming out soon (I recommend you start putting the word out six weeks before the book comes out). Post the cover. Post the blurb from the back of the book. Work on generating interest among people you know who can help get the word out to others.

But you don’t have to stop there.

If you desire, you can work with a marketing firm that specializes in independent publishers. They can help you craft a press release for your book and get copies in the hands of book reviewers who can help get the word out about your novel. A marketing firm can target a specific market and demographic for your book to reach the right people who can help sell your book.

This, too, costs money, so budget accordingly.

The key here is to get your book in front of as many eyes and ears as possible. When the book is released, there will be buzz about your book online, with reviewers, and hopefully, you can snag an interview or two to talk about your book.

Writing a novel, a non-fiction book, a screenplay, a play, and any other creative work takes time. It truly is a marathon that requires hard work, dedication, professionalism, focus, and energy to get to the final stage of the product’s release. I’m very proud of my independent publishing team’s work on The Field and Midnight House. And when you get that box of paperbacks in the mail and open it and see a book’s cover with your name on it, it really is a thrill.

I hope this five-part series was helpful to you and will help you on your publishing journey. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment, and I will get back to you.

Happy writing, and happy publishing!

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Writer’s Workshop Wednesday: Beverly Cleary

One of my all-time favorite authors, when I was a kid, was Beverly Cleary.  I think I read seven of the eight books in the Ramona Quimby series growing up, my favorite being Ramona and Her Mother

In her first job as a children’s librarian, Cleary saw a need for children’s books featuring characters young readers could relate to.  She once said: “I believe in that ‘missionary spirit’ among children’s librarians. Kids deserve books of literary quality, and librarians are so important in encouraging them to read and selecting books that are appropriate.”  It was this “spirit” that led her to write her first novel, Henry Huggins, which was published in 1950 and catapulted her into a career as a children’s author.

Cleary’s career spanned 49 years, with her final published work, Ramona’s World, in 1999. Cleary authored forty-two books, which have collectively sold over 91 million copies worldwide.  Her works have been the recipient of The National Book Award (Ramona and Her Mother) and the Newberry Medal (Dear Mr. Henshaw).  Cleary was honored with the National Medal of Arts and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for her contributions to children’s literature. 

Her Ramona Quimby character has adapted to TV and film, with a TV series called Ramona produced in 1988, and a live-action movie – Ramona and Beezus – in 2010.  The Mouse and the Motorcycle had a smaller adaptation in 1986 as an ABC Weekend Special.

Sadly, Cleary passed away on March 26 of this year at the age of 104.  Below are some clips of interviews that Cleary did over the years about her writing, her writing themes, and more.

Check out the official Beverly Cleary website here!

Enjoy!

Check back next week for another great writer!

Midnight House by Ian Dawson Releases One Week from Today!

Midnight House by Ian Dawson will be out in one week on March 30, 2021!  Get your paperback copy through BookBaby using the info and Promo Code below.

GET YOUR COPY OF MIDNIGHT HOUSE ON BOOKBABY AND USE THE PROMO CODE HOUSE20 TO SAVE 20% OFF THE PAPERBACK AT CHECKOUT.  CLICK HERE TO ORDER

And don’t forget to get The Field by Ian Dawson, too!

ORDER THE PAPERBACK OF THE FIELD FROM BOOKBABY AND USE THE PROMO CODE BIKE15 TO SAVE 15% AT CHECKOUT. CLICK HERE TO ORDER.