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Jul
11
I've always been curious on how scenes were constructed and made memorable. Think of Vader's reveal that he is Luke's father, or think of Brad Pitt's character in Seven finding out that his wife is in the box. Scenes are not only made to be memorable, but they are used to sustain audience interest throughout the story

I did a lot of studying with regards to scenes. Through my journey as a writer, I've come across one of the best tool on how to construct scenes. This tool is the "Scene & Sequel" method. To avoid confusion between Scene (with a capital S) and scene, I will refer to Scene as active scene, and Sequel as reactive scene.

Active scenes comprise of Goal, Conflict and Outcome. For example, Luke's Goal is to defeat Vader. His Conflicts are Vader's skill and his deficiency in skill. The Outcome of this scene is Luke getting his hand chopped off, and furthermore Vader reveals that he is Luke’s father.

Reactive scenes comprise of Reaction, Dilemma and Decision. For example, Luke’s Reaction to Vader revealing he is his father is denial and dread. Luke's Dilemma is choosing between joining his father (but be corrupted by the dark side) or refusing his father (and most likely die). With those choices, Luke's Decision is to refuse his father and jumps to his death (but is rescued later on).

That's the quick and dirty of active scenes and reactive scenes. If you want further details, I recommend Jim Butcher's article on it. Here are the links:
One thing I've noticed on both types of scenes is that it culminates to a "Fork on the Road." On the examples above, the outcome on defeating Vader can either succeed or fail. The dilemma for Luke is a choice between joining Vader or refusing him.

Whatever path they are forced into or whatever path they have chosen, Complication follows. With the same examples, the complication for failing to defeat Vader is Luke losing his hand, and the complication for refusing to join Vader is possible death.

With this in mind, active scenes and reactive scenes can be compressed into a Narrative Q&A. To construct a Narrative Q&A, the question should be close-ended where the answer is either “yes” or “no”, then followed by a complication. With the same examples above, the Narrative Q&A would be “Will Luke defeat Vader? No, and furthermore his hand is cut off,” and then “Will Luke join his father on the dark side? No, and furthermore he falls to his death (but his fortune is reversed).”

These narrative questions are asked unconsciously as we watch or read stories, and these questions sustain us throughout. As soon as we reach the answer, the scene reaches a Turning Point. The turning point changes the trajectory of the story, provided there's a complication.

I've been using Narrative Q&A for my outlines instead of active and reactive scenes. The reason why is because I can clearly see the tension of a scene or sequence. For example, In Seven, the climax has Detective Mills facing a dilemma: Will he shoot John Doe to avenge his wife whose severed head is in a box?
  • Maybe YES as John Doe confesses on killing his wife
  • Maybe NO as Detective Somerset tells him to drop the gun
  • Maybe YES as the rage overwhelms Detective Mills (assumed)
  • Maybe NO as Detective Somerset tells him that John Doe wins if he shoots him
  • DEFINITELY YES as Detective Mills decides to shoot John Doe
With the given example, you can see how it swings from "yes" and "no" until we arrive at a definite answer. The back and forth between "yes" and "no" is tension.

Often, the Narrative Q&A won’t have a zig-zag pattern. At times it’s either a rise or a fall, depending on how the scene is constructed. For example, in Alien, when the facehugger alien dies and falls off Kane’s face, the narrative question is this: Is Kane healthy?
  • Maybe YES as there seems no complications on him and he’s eating
  • DEFINITELY NO as an alien burst through his chest, and FURTHERMORE there’s an alien loose in the ship
Should there always be an answer to a Narrative Q&A? Not really. When an answer is not established or ambiguous, then it’s a Cliffhanger. For example, the ending in Inception (spoilers ahead, of course) has the question: Will Cobb find out if he’s in the real world?
  • Maybe YES as Cobb spins his totem
  • Maybe NO as his children call to him
So why call it Narrative Q&A and not Scene Q&A? Because Narrative Q&A can apply to sequences which is a group of scenes. One scene may not have a conflict or dilemma, but it could be a build-up for a scene that has those dramatic elements. For example, in Pulp Fiction Jules and Vincent’s drive-up to Brett’s apartment has no dilemma or conflict, but the scene is kept in because it illuminates the characters as they talk about royale with cheese. The next scene does have conflict, which is Vincent and Jules trying to retrieve the briefcase. The narrative Q&A for that sequence is this: Will Jules and Vincent get the briefcase?

So how does Narrative Q&A help you as a writer? You can use it as a basis to construct your scene. From the Narrative Q&A, you can extrapolate the scenes or beats that will lead up to the Narrative Q&A. Here’s how I would outline the sequence for Pulp Fiction:
  • BUILD-UP
    • Jules and Vincent driving to Brett’s apartment
    • Jules and Vincent talking about royale with cheese
    • Jules and Vincent arriving at their destination
  • NARRATIVE Q&A
    • Will Jules and Vincent retrieve the briefcase?
    • Maybe NO as Jules toys with Brett
    • Definitely YES as Vincent finds the briefcase
  • SEND-OFF
    • Jules further toying with Brett
    • Jules and Vincent killing Brett
Here you can see that the Narrative Q&A is the nucleus to the build-up and send-off. Also, it clearly delineates the sequence’s beginning, middle and end.

I've been using a lot of examples from movies, but the Narrative Q&A works on novels. The following links will take you to a sheet where I made note of the Narrative Q&A on Nabokov's Lolita and Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan. I had chosen these titles because they are literary works and they have a unique narrator. I wanted to test if the Narrative Q&A holds up on these two titles.
The lists above do not show the connective beats and scenes; they only show the Narrative Q&A.

As an exercise, try finding the Narrative Q&A on movies, shows or books you consume. If you come across a scene or sequence, figure out the Narrative Q&A. Once you have the question, study how the scene or sequence is built-up.

There you have it folks! I hope this will help you in constructing scenes and sequences that elevate your story.
Jun
11
To strengthen the bond between two characters whose friendship is one of the most important part of the book, I've been thinking about this a lot lately.

You don't think about this when you meet a new person. You become friends because you have things in common (interests, personality...) before you actually truly know them. When you really get to know them, there will be some things that you'll like and some you won't. If you decide to stay, it'll mean that you've decided that they are worth remaining into your life after all. Why? Because they'll make you laugh, because they understand you, ultimately; they give you something in return.

What does it take to become close friends with someone, apart from time? Some people, I've known for years, most of whom I barely talk to by now. We are just too different, and I believe we always have been. What they offered to me was temporary. We don't share the same values, and I probably wouldn't enjoy seeing them all the time.

Those I kept: I like the way they think, or I love the energy they bring which seems to collide perfectly well with mine. With some of them it's all about our conversations and how they bring something different to the things I observe, be it in my day to day life or my deeper thoughts. They do so each in their own unique way; they are all different. Still, some friendships are a bit more physical. Simply put; I just love spending time with them. They make me laugh, and even though we don't agree on all important things and may very rarely have long and intellectual conversations about the world for that very reason, it may never matter to us at the end of the line. Chances are, we will be too busy enjoying ourselves to think about such things. I believe that in such relationships, despite the fact that we may not be similar in our way of thinking, all similarity and connection found may mainly if not fully reside in the mechanical functioning of our brain. It is a rare thing to find someone with whom it is possible to be understood and communicate without the need of words. Most likely, what you are trying to express, they will be feeling it, too. Perhaps not in the same exact way, but surely close enough.

I've been thinking about two characters I've read about lately whose friendship has moved me beyond words. In the end I believe it was those both types of friendships - intellectual and physical - in one. It started as an intellectual friendship, and as the two grew into one-another, turned into a physical one as well without their noticing. The result was that they were rarely apart, reason being that they understood each other like they rarely, if ever, had with others, but also that together they brought an energy to every moment that passed that, surely, made everything better. It is a simple word but a large one: better in the sense that everything became more tolerable; easier and more enjoyable; filled with possibilities which, as time together must have proven, had ways of becoming stories that they might ultimately never forget, and share with others even after years will have passed.

To add to it, I believe it has also to do with what they brought in each other in terms of character. The way that they influenced each other was commendable, and if one of the two may not have noticed, it was shown many times that the other had. This led him, I believe, to become even more dependant on his friend than he may have been in the past, even when their appreciation of each other was already high. It is an interesting thing to observe. This side of him that has matured, he owes it to his friend. It is something that he regards highly of him. This influence, which is in part owed to the great kindness of his friend, sometimes feels, in the book, as though he is aware of it the way we are aware of warm covers on cold nights, or like a coat in a snow storm. Every time it showed, he seemed to be reminded of his friend and the way that he looks up to him for it.

I began writing this in hopes of discovering something new and different about strong friendships that I might have missed before, something almost mythical, like an old romance novel, but perhaps it can also be said that in every ordinary thing may reside something magical and rare. It could be that we are only too used to it to notice, or are not paying enough attention. In the end, it is true that strong friendships can only be built with time; to realize that we love the person in question and the things they bring to us, but also time to reflect what they mean to us and how far we are willing to go to keep them. I realize now that I may have been looking for a magical answer to bypass this element of time to create a bond between my two main characters, so powerful, that it would be strong right away like a platonic love at first sight. But there is nothing boring about time, if done correctly. We do not form such strong connections with every stranger we meet, it simply cannot be forced. Why do we find such delight in platonic romances such as Sherlock and Watson, Harry and Ron, Marty and Doc (each different in their own way, but relatable in their strength and sacrifices)? It could be for the very same reason that the romance genre has been dominating the movie industry for decades. It enviable because it is rare. We all have, or at least for the greater part of us, formed a romantic connection with someone, and there is not a person on earth that has never had a friend, but the connection that we find in movies, powerful as what made the Titanic such a historical sensation in its industry, same as Good Will Hunting, Forrest Gump or the Dead Poet society, are rare things indeed. We may never live to experience these ourselves, but it is quite nice to feel it through some other's eyes, for an hour and a half or more.

This may look like complete gibberish. I don't truly expect anyone to read it, but it has helped putting a lot of things into perspective. Also english isn't my first language.....
Jan
12
I discovered copywork after listening to a podcast (I’m not sure what episode or which podcast it was from; to that, I apologize). I devote about 20 minutes on the exercise: I take a novel or short story and then copy it, word for word.

That’s it.

I rotate between three stories. Currently, I’m doing Stephen King’s IT, James Clavell’s Shogun and Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings. I then switch out a title once I’ve finished copying a chapter, either doing another novel or short story. When I’m reading a story and come across an engaging scene, I make note of the chapter and page so I can copy it after I finish reading the book (read for pleasure first; study it later).

I started doing copywork because I was insecure on how I style my sentences. Often, when I’m writing on my manuscript, I worry that I’m using too much action and description, and not enough character thoughts and narrative intrusions. After doing some copywork, I began questioning the oft parroted rule “show, don’t tell.” Eventually I found that the rule must be broken: it is not “show, don’t tell,” it is “show and tell.”

Novice writers tend to “tell” a lot. They overstay inside their character’s head, make the narrator intrude too much, and blabber on and on and on about the world they crafted. But once they take the advice “show, don’t tell” to heart, the novice writer will overdo it and is left with nothing but action and dialogue and description.
Mistakes must be made, and the novice writer must learn. So I learned.

Copywork made me understand that “showing” and “telling” is a spectrum. It is not about balance; it is about rhythm.
There are seven narrative modes. I have listed them from concrete to abstract, from “showing” to “telling.”
  • Action
  • Dialogue
  • Description
  • Summary/Transition
  • Thought
  • Intrusion
  • Exposition
The “showing” modes are action, dialogue and description. These are concrete. You see action, you hear dialogue, you sense what’s being described, like the smell of wet garbage or the taste of a lip-puckering lemon slice.

In between “showing” and “telling” is summary and transition. Action and dialogue are condensed by the narrator in this mode.

The “telling” modes are thought, intrusion and exposition. These are modes that belong to the narrator, who is an abstract entity of the author’s creation. It reveals what the character is thinking. It intrudes like a ghost, telling us something about the character, or what’s about to happen. Sometimes they’ll explain something that may or may not be relevant, but feel it’s important for the narrator to convey.

So I do this copywork exercise for 12 minutes. Once I’m done copying, I’ll start highlighting clauses and phrases by their narrative mode, which usually takes less than 8 minutes.
The following are the color-coding I use and a brief explanation why it’s colored that way.
  • Action as Red or Orange, like blood and explosions, the stuff associated with action movies.
  • Dialogue as nothing because you can easily identify it with quotation marks. If you’re doing copywork of Cormac McCarthy, who eschews quotation marks, then you can add those for your sake (and sanity).
  • Description as Green, like most of Mother Nature with her trees and grass and shrubberies.
  • Summary/Transition as Yellow, like the caution signal in traffic lights.
  • Thought as Blue, like the sky where clouds float, which I associate with thought bubbles in comics (because they look like clouds).
  • Intrusion as Pink because Narrators are fabulous entities (the color choice was a personal thing).
  • Exposition as Gray because it’s a dull color.
Of course you can have your own color scheme that makes sense to you.

Now that we have designated certain colors to their modes, we start highlighting. Look for clauses and phrases, not sentences alone. You will highlight the following:
  • Main Clauses
  • Subordinate Clauses
  • Absolute Phrases
  • Participial Phrases
These are the main ones you should identify. I omitted Prepositional Phrases because they function as adjectives or adverbs.

Let me explain, then, what the narrative modes are.

Action is self-explanatory. If there’s movement, then it’s action. Keyword here is dynamic.

Description can easily be discerned with the S-LV-C sentence construction (is, was, see, hear, smell, feel, taste, etc.). It can be identified with sensory verbs. Keyword here is static.

Dialogue is pretty self-explanatory as well. If folks are talking in real-time, it’s dialogue.

Summary are sentences or paragraphs that speed up time. If Action or Dialogue is being portrayed, but not in great detail, then it is Summary. Transitionals are usually subordinate clauses that marks a jump in time or change in location, thus changing from one scene to another.

Thought has two types: direct and indirect. Direct are sentences with thought tags (I can't believe I broke my arm for that, he thought). Indirect are phrases or clauses without thought tags, but still attributable to a character’s thoughts (Jimmi remembered that time he broke his arm. He knelt down, wondering why he climbed that tree in the first place).

Narrative Intrusion or Intrusion is when the narrator addresses the reader or relays what a character is subconsciously thinking or feeling.

Often Indirect Thoughts and Intrusion are hard to discern. If it comes to that, my rule is this: if the character may think it at the moment, then it is Thoughts. Otherwise it is Intrusion. The following example is from The Gunslinger by Stephen King (underline is my revision):

[He muttered] the old and powerful nonsense words as he did . . . Strange how some of childhood’s words and ways fell to the wayside.​

In the second sentence (Strange how some . . . ), it is not clear who is conveying this. The narrator could be interjecting their thoughts, or the gunslinger could be thinking this. But since it’s plausible the gunslinger can think this, the second sentence is Thought.

Same example, but as Intrusion (original text):

[He muttered] the old and powerful nonsense words as he did . . . It was strange how some of childhood’s words and ways fell to the wayside and were left behind, while others clamped tight and rode for life, growing the heavier to carry as time passed.​

In the second sentence (It was strange how . . . ), the gunslinger might be thinking this. But since the gunslinger is preoccupied with singing a childhood song, it’s hard to imagine that he is having this detailed train of thought. The clue that makes this an Intrusion is the narrator’s interjection on how “others clamped tight and rode for life”.

First person POV frequently addresses the reader since the narrator is either talking to themselves or the reader. The following example is from Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov:

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.​

Another thing that a narrator can do is look into the future that the character would not be aware of. For example:

Jim stopped to look at the grotesque painting. If he hadn’t looked at it, then he would have been safe from the curse that would kill him in ten days.​

On the second sentence, the narrator intrudes, giving the reader a hint of what’s to come. Dramatic Irony is always an Intrusion. Dramatic Irony is when the reader knows more than the characters, thanks to the narrator giving that info. On the example above, the reader knows that Jim will be cursed, but Jim is not aware of it yet.

Exposition or Info Dump is the narrator relaying facts and information regarding the story’s universe. If Intrusion is intimate, then Exposition is cold. In Intrusion, the narrator is subjective, biased or opinionated towards the subject. In Exposition, the narrator is objective, detached or fact-based.

Jim stopped to look at the grotesque painting. It was made in 1723 by Johann Mayorga, who had used virgin blood for the reds and charred bone for the blacks. Jim shivered at the sight of it.​

On the second sentence, a fact has been relayed to us. This is a quick exposition. The following is an info dump:

Jim stopped to look at the grotesque painting. It was made in 1723 by Johann Mayorga, who had used virgin blood for the reds and charred bone for the blacks. The canvas, though mistaken with real cloth, was made of stretched and dried human skin. When the authorities eventually discovered his macabre hobby, they had found thirteen canvasses, all dried and ready to be painted on. His brushes . . .​

Too much information could rob the reader of some intrigue and mystery. It is good practice to sprinkle it in bite-sizes unless you want to elicit an emotion from info dumping. But it can become tedious. Veteran authors are adept with info dumping;...
Jan
05
I'm not some great author...

But I've gone from an unpublished cautious scrub slowly and gently poking around for ideas and lessons on the internet, to a driven confident writer who ONE:

Knows what they want to say and TWO... Knows how to say it. Here's what this website and it's amazing people have taught me in the last year.

1. Fail:


Write what you want, post it fast somewhere, and wait. ... Wait.

Let those critiques come in, and SHUT UP!

Wait...

Let people tear your baby apart. Let them be honest. You need to learn to accept negative criticism. Let people tell you what they liked about your work, and what was wrong with it. Recognize when smarter better people are giving you good advice, and use it. There'll be positive feedback, sure. But pats on the back don't help you get better. Learn to thrive on advice that points out flaws in your creations, so you can get learn to write like a pro.

2. Write what you want:

What are you thinking about right now? What's in your head, right now, that piques your interest? Do you like TVs? Are you a TV expert? What about wines? Do you know the perfect wine to mix with late nights when the sun is still so hot it manages to light and warm the room through the blinds?

What consumes your thoughts when you're alone in the dark, because THAT'S what you should be writing about.

Don't follow market trends, or research Fandango for 50 shades of bullshit or hunger game knockoffs. Those people made millions because they wrote what they wanted, and they got rewarded for it. Write what you want, and you'll be writing something real and true and magnificent.

3. Write every day.

This may sound insulting and stupid, but I'm going to say it because some people need to hear it. To be a writer you need to want to want to write.

Andy Weir didn't write The Martian so he could sell millions of books and become famous. He posted blurbs on a blog because he wanted to write. It was something he did every day, because he loved the subject and the idea of conveying his love of space exploration through writing. J. R.R. Tolkein wrote a genre defining magnum opus as a side project he sent to his son before it ever saw a publisher.

Great writers are ten(10) steps ahead of their own fame. If you've written a masterpiece, by the time it's changing the world you're probably ten chapters into you'r 3rd book.

Because you're a writer.
Sep
13
Fiction inspires, and where it has inspired good in the world, it has also inspired evil. John Hinckley, Jr. is infamous for shooting President Ronald Reagan, in an attack that wounded three others, including the late gun control advocate James Brady. He claimed to want to impress Jodie Foster after he became obsessed with her from her performance in Taxi Driver.

More recently, two adolescent girls were arrested for attempted murder after luring their peer into the woods and attacking her, in an effort to impress the fictitious character Slenderman. Other attacks and atrocities have been tied to video games and music. Right or wrong, creators are often blamed for atrocities when perpetrators claim to have been inspired by the creators' work.

Thankfully, many creators have not stopped creating as a result of such crimes. In fact, they sometimes respond to the criticism through their chosen medium. After being blamed for inspiring Columbine attackers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, musician Marilyn Manson dedicated a chapter of his autobiography, The Long, Hard Road Out of Hell to the outcry against him. To this day, he continues creating.

Despite legal protections for creators against criminal liability in such cases, there are those who argue creators have a responsibility to abstain from content that could potentially inspire evil actions. Unfortunately, that argument does not take personal responsibility into account.

The nature of motivation comes into play, and it is imperative for creators to realize motivation is internal. To use an analogy, the sun may inspire an artist, but it cannot pick up a paintbrush for him. A person may claim they were inspired by something to do evil, but they still made the choice to commit the action. Therefore, a creator is not morally responsible for the actions of those inspired by their work.

That lack of liability on legal and moral grounds does not, however, release us as creators from any responsibility whatsoever. Early editions of Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk were rumored to contain a recipe for an explosive substance. Later editions of the book and the movie the book inspired omitted certain details, so anyone seeking to create explosives would end up with an inert substance if they followed the instructions given by Tyler Durden.

More recent editions of the novel include a note from the author describing how people responded to the story. He tells of "fight club" themes in everything from rodeos to adult entertainment, mostly used as a marketing tactic. But there were also those who started illegal fighting organizations, committed criminal conspiracies, and even maimed themselves to be like the story's characters. It's clear from the story that the creators did not encourage these actions, yet people did them.

If we as creators wish to avoid censorship, we must censor ourselves proactively. Common sense dictates there is a difference between telling someone about a violent event and laying out the procedure for the event in detail. There is a reason movies and books about crime often fictionalize the names, locations, and layouts of buildings destroyed or otherwise attacked by criminals in a story.

The art of storytelling allows room for "telling it like it is" without providing an instruction manual for chaos. But even if we write a realistic story without providing too many details, there will always be the potential for someone to be inspired toward criminal activity because of our work. That's not our problem, frankly, and we would do well to keep from blaming ourselves for those actions.

In summary, a creator's responsibility is to tell a good story, while utilizing common sense and empathy to avoid details that make immoral or criminal activities easy. Certainly someone could find instructions for anything, but it's important that we aren't the ones to provide that information. While no one but we can decide what we consider immoral, there is always a way to tell a good story and steer clear of dangerous content.

If we do find ourselves at the center of controversy, we are at least in charted territory. Many creators have faced accusations and criticism for inspiring violence, but have continued to create in spite of--and often because of--those accusations. The most we can ask of ourselves is to live decently within the law, and tell a good story. If we've done that, we can be certain that anyone accusing us of inciting violence has no ground to stand upon.
Aug
09
Why are characters so important?
One of the most important aspects of fiction is the characters. Stories are all about people (and creatures or things which, to all intents and purposes, act like people). No matter how good your plot is, or how realistic your setting, if the characters don’t work your reader won’t enjoy the story.

Readers need to feel that they understand your characters. This means that their motives need to be clear, their actions need to make sense, and the reader needs to be able to empathise with them. That doesn’t necessarily mean they like them, just that they can get inside the characters’ heads and understand what they are thinking and feeling, and why.

The problem of empathy in autism
There are two main types of empathy: cognitive, and affective. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand other people’s thoughts, feelings and perspectives, and affective empathy is the ability to share in and reciprocate others’ feelings. People with autism and aspergers often struggle with cognitive empathy, which makes it harder for us to work out what other people are thinking and feeling, and what they know and do not know. Often we have to work this out logically from knowledge we already have or patterns we have observed previously, rather than doing it spontaneously or naturally through our interactions with people. Sometimes our understanding of other people takes more time, and we realise things about people after the interaction has already finished.

How does this problem of empathy apply in writing?
A character is not a real person. Even if it is based on a real person, the character itself is not real. However, empathy still applies when writing a story. When you are writing a story, there are two perspectives influencing what gets written down: the perspective of the author, and the perspective of the character.

Writing the story from the perspective of the author is a problem because the author already knows everything about the story. He/she also knows everything about all the other characters. So if the author’s own perspective ‘bleeds’ into those of the characters, it distorts the characters’ points of view. The character will appear to know things that they should not know; or they might think, feel, say and do things which do not make sense in the context of the story (for example if these thoughts, feelings, words and actions are those of the author).

So in order to correctly portray your character, you have to take their perspective. You have to put yourself into their mind and think not about what you are thinking and feeling, not what you know or would do in their situation, but about them. In other words, you have to empathise with your character in just the same way as you would with a real person.

Lets look at an example to illustrate this point. Our main character is a little boy called Simon. Simon’s parents are arguing behind a closed door. Simon can’t open the door, or his parents will know he is listening. However, he can’t hear his parents’ whispers well through the door, so only hears fragments. Later, Simon is telling his sister what he heard. In order to know what he knows, the writer has to empathise with Simon. What can he reasonably know in this situation? And which parts of the argument (which you, the author, already know) represent knowledge he cannot have? This is crucially important, because it will affect the realism of the character and of how he chooses to act on his knowledge. If he acts on information he shouldn’t know, his actions will appear unrealistic.

A further complication: ‘double’ empathy
Your characters are interacting with other characters. That means they also have to empathise. So you have to take the perspective of one character and then consider what he/she knows about other characters. So we have to get inside Simon’s head and work out what he knows about his parents’ argument. Now we have to think about how Simon will understand what his sister is thinking and feeling, and what she already knows or does not know, during his interaction with her. For example, when he tells her that he heard the word ‘divorce’ through the door, his sister will react. But what does this reaction mean? That depends. Does she understand what the word ‘divorce’ means? If so, she might be shocked. If not, she might be confused. Could she already have known that her parents were talking about divorce? And how does Simon know that she knows this?

As you can see empathising with characters is not simple. It’s easy to get tied up in knots thinking not only about what your character is thinking and feeling and what he/she knows, but also about what they know of the perspectives of other characters and how this interplay of perspectives affects their communication and interaction.

Strategies for writing characters
So empathy, which is a fundamental difficulty in autism, is central to writing realistic and consistent characters. But all is not lost. There are things you can do to make this easier, and they mirror the strategies you might use when trying to empathise with people in real life.

Ensure your body is regulated
Unmet sensory needs will affect your information processing. Empathy is a cognitive process, so sensory dysregulation will impair your ability to take your characters’ perspectives effectively. Before you start writing, or even thinking about writing, do what you need to do to regulate your body. That might mean moving around, fidgeting, or making some noise if you are a sensory seeker, or adjusting the environment (e.g. lighting, background noise, resonance in the room etc) if you are hyper-sensitive to any of these things. Take regular breaks while you are working to check you are still regulated, as sometimes bodily and sensory dysregulation can creep in and affect thinking without you realising it—especially if you are very focused on what you are doing.

Slow down
This is easier when writing than when interacting with a real person. Sometimes it takes time to process information about others’ perspectives, and this is true when writing fiction as well. When you are writing, you have the luxury of slowing down and taking the time you need to work out your character’s perspective.

Work backwards
It can be hard to start from a character’s current position, take their perspective, and work out their actions from that point. Sometimes it’s easier to start with what you want the character to do next. Then, consider what would cause them to do that, and what would they need to know or understand in order to do it. Then you can fill in the gaps in the detail of the character’s perspective linking one action to another, while keeping their actions consistent with their state of mind.

Go back and forth between inner monologue and actions
When you’re re-reading, keep going back and forth between your descriptions of your characters’ thoughts and feelings, and the things they do as a result of them. Ask yourself if it makes sense that they would say or do what they did in light of their internal state.

Ask someone to check your characters’ actions
If you’re not sure, check with someone else whether your character’s actions make sense in light of what you have told the reader about them (i.e. what they think, feel and know). If they don’t, then it’s possible that you have misjudged or miscommunicated something about your character’s mindset.

Base characters on people you know
Because they’re not real, characters have the potential to do anything. That leaves a lot of scope for them to behave in ways which a real person might not. If you base your characters, even loosely, on people you know well, then it can be easier to take their perspective. This is because you can draw on past experience of interactions with that person when determining the actions they take as a result of their situation.

Include characters with autism
If your main character is autistic, you can be explicit about the fact that they don’t know certain things. This takes some of the burden of empathy away. This is probably a short-term fix, however. The reason for this is that in order for the plot to progress, they will need to learn things that they didn’t know before, which means you need to know those things and find ways for your character to learn them; you also need to be conscious of the things your character doesn’t know, which in itself requires empathy. However, it may be easier to empathise with an autistic character if their mindset more closely reflects your own.

Make detailed character sheets
This will help to consolidate your characters’...
Aug
07
Why write autistic characters?
Recognition of autism is improving as society learns more about what it means to be autistic. We now recognise that autism is prevalent throughout many aspects of society, and are understanding more and more about both the challenges and advantages it brings. It is statistically likely that everybody knows somebody with autism, whether that person knows they are autistic or not. And it is for this reason that I think there should be more autistic characters in literature. Autism is part of the human experience, bringing a unique and sometimes quirky perspective and novel ways of solving problems. These factors alone create the potential for autism to influence character and plot in interesting ways.

What is autism?
Autism is a congenital neurological difference which results in altered perception and information processing. This might sound very different to other descriptions of autism, which often focus on impairments, disabilities and social difficulties. However, these difficulties are secondary to the main difference in autism. Think of the brain as a computer; there are inputs (keyboards, mice, touch screens etc), which are akin to the senses, and there are outputs (displays, speakers and hardware devices) which resemble human communication, movement and action. Between the input and the output is the processor, which is what makes sense of the input and decides on the most appropriate output.

In autism, the inputs (i.e. the senses) work differently. Some of them are more sensitive than usual, some of them are less so. This can mean hyper-sensitivity to certain senses, such as finding light over a certain brightness or noise which is relatively quiet very overwhelming. Conversely, hypo-sensitivity can lead to things like not noticing certain sensations and therefore craving them in order to feel regulated; this is often associated with the need to spin around or flap limbs, which are due to reduced vestibular and proprioceptive senses.

The effect of all this is that information is processed differently by the brain. Things to which the person is hyper-sensitive is given a higher priority, because it is the most demanding of attention. Things to which they are hypo-sensitive is given reduced priority, because it is unnoticed or not considered to be important. And the processing of information, which is required in order to understand it, is slowed down or altered by the overwhelming amount of stimulation which is bombarding the person at any given time.

The reason why this affects social interaction is complicated. First, in this whirlwind of sensory information, social behaviours from other people may simply not be noticed. I don’t see that you are angry because my visual cortex is burned out trying to ignore the patterns on the wallpaper. Or I can’t take in your tone of voice because the police siren down the street is too distressing. As children, this means that autistic people often miss opportunities to learn about social interaction by observing it in others. Furthermore, people are often very unpredictable, and in a world consisting of overwhelming sensory information, autistic people tend to be drawn to things which are consistent and safe. This is the reason why autistic people often withdraw from social situations. The sensory onslaught is overwhelming, and the social demands too great to cope with. This leads to huge amounts of stress, fatigue, and ultimately shutdown.

That all sounds terrible. Why would I want to include an autistic character in my writing?
The same aspects of altered sensory and information processing which cause a lot of turmoil for autistic people also brings many gifts. Sensory hyper-sensitivity can lead to amazing attention to detail, noticing things that others wouldn’t (or couldn’t). Hypo-sensitivity can be more of a challenge, but at times can work well, such as by filtering out irrelevant stimuli which might be distracting to other people. This can help massively with focus. On the subject of attention, it tends to be single-channeled in autism, rather than multitasking. This means that autistic people can focus strongly on one thing at a time, and with such strong focus to the exclusion of all else they can accomplish more in a shorter space of time. Interests for people with autism tend to be narrow, and this allows them to learn huge amounts of information and develop amazing skills within these interests. This is partly due to the search for safe consistency previously noted, and partly because once a motivating interest is found it tends to become a passion. In childhood this looks like obsessions (such as loving a particular cup and spinning it round and round over and over again), and in adulthood it tends to mean a narrow focus on particular topic areas.

For these reasons, autistic characters in fiction can provide an interesting perspective. They will notice things around them in ways which other characters don’t. Some things that the reader might expect them to be aware of will go unnoticed, and this will cause confusion and misunderstandings for the characters. They will read different things in to other people’s intentions, and will solve problems in different ways. They will interpret situations differently, and can present these interpretations in ways which can intrigue readers and make them think about their own perceptions of the environment around them - not to mention the people within it.

How to write a good autistic character
I am by no means claiming to be an authority on writing. Far from it - I am an amateur at best. But I am a specialist in autism by profession, know many autistic people, have autistic relatives, and am on the autism spectrum myself. So I do know a lot about autism, what it is, and more importantly, what it is not. So here are my tips on how to portray autism in a way which will accurately reflect the truth of its differences, while at the same time allowing your reader to empathise with the character.

Meet real people with autism
Characters in fiction will portray their surface behaviours, and perhaps some of their inner monologue and thought processes. But they won’t really explore the processing that is going on under the surface. So you might see that a character is covering their ears when a train goes by, and they might even say that the sound is unbearable, but you won’t necessarily get deep insight into how that affects that person at the time (e.g. that when they are experiencing am overwhelming stimulus in one sensory modality they are unable to process information from other senses). Also, they probably won’t explain how this experience affects them moving on from there, i.e. the time it takes for the sensory system to return to baseline. You might also see the social difficulties they have, but not necessarily the reasons for them. It is important to understand not only what’s going on on the surface, but also the processing differences which are associated with them. And the best person to tell you about those things is a person with autism.

Read autobiographies about autistic people
Wenn Lawson, Ros Blackburn, Clare Sainsbury, Jim Sinclair, Zaffy Simone... these and other autistic adults can tell you, from a first-hand perspective, what it is like to experience the world as an autistic person. Reading their accounts will help you get inside the mind of an autistic person and take their POV.

Beware of stereotypes
Rain Man has a lot to answer for. As does The Big Bang Theory. These are catchphrase characters who portray stereotypical autistic traits. Outside of fiction, we are bombarded by historical figures who are posthumously diagnosed with autism. Mozart, Einstein, Lewis Carrol and Alan Turing are all touted as autistic, and all on the grounds of genius or prodigious abilities and/or an aloof manner with people. Yes these can be characteristics of autism, but not necessarily. Focusing on these traits and basing ostensibly autistic characters on them risks giving a stereotyped and two-dimensional view of autism. So don't write a character who flaps his hands and hums to himself and repeats the same phrases over and over again. Yes some autistic people do those things, and yes your character might do them at some points. But if it's all they do, and if you don't explain why they are doing, your character will seem shallow. This is unfulfilling for readers, deprives them of an opportunity to learn about autism in an enjoyable way, and is annoying for people with autism!

Get empathy right
It is a myth that people with autism lack empathy. There are two main types of empathy: cognitive, and affective. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand other people’s thoughts, feelings and perspectives, and...
Jul
24
There are some fundamental differences between actual, spoken conversation and the dialog we expect to see in fiction. This means that dialog is one of the most difficult things to make "realistic" in writing, because the idea that we need to make is "realistic" at all is a misapprehension. I'm going to run down a few highlights.

1. People say "um" and "uh." Characters do not.

It's not that characters are that much more intelligent than the average person, but rather that the reader hasn't got time to filter out a lot of "Er... Um. Hm," every time your protagonist needs to order a sandwich. These interjections are one of a set of several things that we add to dialog only as seasoning: a dab here, a pinch there, and you're done. You can throw in one of these to demonstrate that a character is taken aback by something or confused by some strange circumstance. Use too many, however, and what you're signaling is not that something weird is going on, but rather that your character is stupid, apt to be confused by the most mundane things.

I don't bring this up because it's a thing people commonly get wrong--writers rightly see the "hmmmm" in their stream of consciousness as their own grasping for what comes next rather than the character's--but because this concept of "spice" or "seasoning" is a good one to carry forward.

2. People work blue. Characters are PG-13.

If I had to guess how often I used the word "fuck" throughout my college years, I would be too ashamed to actually give you a number. It's dropped off a little since then, believe it or not. This is a thing that real people do: put them in a blue collar situation and they will swear a blue streak up and down the road. Characters don't have this luxury.

"But Tom Clancy's characters swear nonstop!"

You're right; his works are a prominent exception when I think about this topic. But how would his characters express an extreme sentiment in a trying time? Like, what if someone were to drop a bomb on their garage? Well, they'd have pretty much the same reaction to that as they would to sour milk on their Cap'n Crunch. "God dammit to hell, stupid expiration date..."

By all means, let your characters swear, but use some restraint so that profanity doesn't lose its impact. Do that, and it's also possible to portray a character as being "foul-mouthed," a thing that becomes far more difficult to pull off if everyone in your cast is screeching four letter words nonstop.

3. People make small talk. Characters make points.

I've had two people ask me how I'm doing today and a third talk to me about their dog. None of that has a damn thing to do with anything I'm trying to accomplish. It's called small talk, and it's something humans engage in when stuck together on an elevator, or when waiting for a taxi after someone has dropped a bomb on their garage. I assume. Anyway, the point is that your characters should not do this. They should not have time to do this. That's not to say that every line of dialog has to relate directly to your plot. Not every spoken word relates to the Death Star: some of them are about wampas, or nonsensical euphemisms for sex, drugs, and rock and roll, like "Toshi station" and "power converters."

Dialog is one of your most powerful tools. It's highlighted with a pair of quotation marks, it is often offset with whitespace, and it tends to take up less room on the page than your exposition, which means that readers almost always read dialog. (Fun fact: they will skim pretty much everything else!) This makes dialog prime real estate for anything important that you want to say to the reader. Keep your blathering to a minimum. If a little bit of color commentary is important to a character or to the setting, sure, go for it! ...But don't waste my time with a grocery list unless those groceries are about to get MacGuyvered into a miraculous escape or a bomb for someone's garage.

None of this is realistic in the least.

Spend a little time watching Bob Ross on YouTube. He has not once painted a tree, or a rock, or a bush, or a lake, or a mountain, or a cloud, or a sky, or anything at all. He just bangs the brush on the canvas with the right technique, and your brain will tell you that you are looking at all of those things because you've seen them before, and the illusion works. Your objective in writing is very similar: you want to give your reader the illusion of realism (we call it "verisimilitude" when we have extra $64 dollar words lying around). but your writing needs to be better than real.
Apr
03
Joseph Campbell said to follow your bliss. My bliss is making up stories and experiencing them as if I’m inside the character’s head. (Sometimes I hear their voices, but they shut up once I put them on paper.)

At one point, however, writing became as excruciating as pulling teeth and jamming them back in.

A little background:

I always believed that in order to write professionally you needed to outline. So I did an outline for a novel that I always wanted to write. I had everything completed. I had a scene list, a timeline and a character sheet.

I was prepared.

But when the time came to write, I choked.

For some reason I couldn’t write. I had been enthusiastic when I was creating the outline, but that enthusiasm didn’t translate over to actually writing the story.

I went into writing depression for months. I got out of the funk when I read that Stephen King, Terry Pratchett and, to some degree, George RR Martin were discovery writers. For those who don’t know, discovery writers don’t do outlines. They’d jump in the story without an outline to buoy them.

Writing without an outline? Sounded crazy. And scary. But at that time, I had nothing to lose, so I experimented. I started small, wrote a short story without an outline.

Tell you what, it was fun.

I felt like a kid again, that kid who tapped on his daddy’s typewriter, writing stories, conceiving of worlds and scenarios that delighted me and me alone. Bliss. Oh childhood bliss!

After that, I learned I was a discovery writer . . . to some degree. You see, I still outline. I enjoy outlining actually, mapping out how the story unfolds in those ugly bullet-points. But here’s the kicker: I outline only after the first draft.

It is my process. It is my bliss. Some are discovery writers. Some are outliners. Some are just maniacs who type gold.

Campbell said to follow your bliss; for us writers, it’s find your process.

Everyone has their own way of writing a story. For me, I’m slowly discovering it although I’m not sure I have it pat down. Take a gander of my trainwreck of a process:
  • WRITING PROCESS (SUMMARY)
  • 1st Draft
    • Write the damn story
    • Keep a free writing file to keep track of thought process
    • Outline as you go. Use the beats format below. (VERB-ING, Etc.)
  • 2nd Draft
    • Phase 1: Read through, note taking and commentary
      • Work on a print out for this
    • Phase 2: Create Proposal Outline for 2nd Draft
      • Don’t fill in the Action/Reaction Beats. If there’s Action/Reaction Beats that needs to appear, make note of it, but don’t fill it all.
    • Phase 3: Write the 2nd draft with an Active Outline as a guide
      • Similar to “outline as you go,” fill in the Action/Reaction Beats on the outline
  • 3rd Draft
    • Phase 1: Silent read and revise as you go.
      • Do 10 pages at a time, then rest
    • Phase 2: Read out loud and revise as you go.
      • Work on the computer using a pacer
      • Do 4 pages at a time, then rest
    • Phase 3: Read out loud, and apply final edits, polish and touches.
      • Work on a print-out of the manuscript
So how do you find your process? Well, think back on how you crafted your novel or short story. Go through the process in your head and write the steps down. You can outline it or whatever. It’s your process. Do what you want.

Break them down in drafts, like the one I have above. Next step is to label the phases for each drafts. Phases are actions or to-dos or special rituals, like summoning Cthulhu, within each draft. With my process above, you can see the phases I go through on the second and third draft. Use that as a template, then fill out your own process.

You hear about how artist steal. Well, my fellow artist, here you can steal my writing process. (But why?) Your brain might be repulsed by it, and to that I say, “good.” My brain was repulsed when I outlined my story. Oh, here’s a secret: the writing process above is stolen from multiple writers. It is literally a Frankenstein of writing processes.

But why write it down? The very act of writing it down makes it tangible. You can see areas where you can improve, innovate and, more importantly, experiment. If I hadn’t experimented on writing without an outline, then I wouldn’t have finally finished my first novel. And having it written down is like capturing your trade-secret as a writer.

Does that mean you have to follow your process every time you write a story? Of course not. Like I mentioned earlier: improve, innovate and experiment.

So,

follow your bliss; find your process.
Dec
24
I'm not some great Author.

I'm not published, and I may never be published. One day I hope to hold my own book in my hand, but I don't follow market trends or try to write what's popular. None of that matters to me, because I've written since I could read. I'll be writing on my death bed. Because I know why, guys. I know why we're all doing this.

Writing is the language of life. No matter what you've done, no matter how you've changed throughout however many years of life, your writing is always there for you.

I was eight when I crafted my first narrative. It was a crappy fan-fiction, but I loved Starcraft and Buzz Lightyear. I wanted to be Sarah Kerrigan, leading the Alien knockoffs against boring, redneck humans, and I wanted Zeratul to have more narrative than the games gave him. So I changed the Buzz Lightyear of Star Command movie into a Starcraft story, with the space rangers as Protoss and Zurg as... the Zerg. It was horrible. I still have it. My kids love it.

When I was in Afghanistan I lost friends to pieces of trash and fertilizer combined into mines capable of peeling the armor off of tanks. I watched brothers, literal brothers, loose each other. They had joined together and trained together. Now, one walks with a cane, the other's soul haunts Afghanistan. That Marine was better than me, and he died. The only thing that kept me going was writing about those brothers; private stories that no one will see. In my stories about them they WON. Every time. They crushed their enemy.

When I almost died in Okinawa I was stuck in a hospital bed for a week, with forty-five days afterwards spent thinking my right arm would never work right again. But, while I was trapped in the barracks, I could still prop my gimp arm on a desk and write a nasty, sex filled cyberpunk romp. I didn't fantasize about blazing through the sprawl of Neo Tokyo, guns blazing; I wrote it. I lived it.

I wouldn't be alive if not for writing. Sure, I'd exist in the world somewhere. You'd see me walking around. I'd have a job, watch TV, like facebook stuff, but I'd be dead. I'd be one of a billion boring people tweeting their butt flexes for subs. I wouldn't be alive.

Writing helps us express our lives in ways nothing else will. Give us one paragraph, we will give you a whole new world to love, and break, and fuck, and cry for.

Please, never stop writing. Never stop telling stories. You know you love it.