Weekly Musing: Something Different

This week I thought I’d talked about a movie I recently watched and what caught my attention as a writer. This won’t be a movie review, there are plenty of site for that, rather I’ll be examining the narrative structure, dialogue, and character development of Dunkirk.

First, let’s examine the narrative structure of the movie. While it doesn’t break any ground in structure, I still found it intriguing. Christopher Nolan, who in addition to directing the film also wrote and produced it, utilizes a non-linear approach. He uses flashbacks at appropriate times to develop certain characters but to also show the chain of events which took a dicey situation into a disaster. Nolan makes it easy to keep track of the back and forth which to me is tricky. There are books I’ve read which have done this back and forth is such a sloppy way I couldn’t keep track of where I was in the timeline.

Using a non-linear approach to storytelling is tricky no matter what the medium is. Perhaps it’s easy for a visual medium, perhaps it’s easier for the written word. I truly don’t know. There are some people who simply cannot follow anything straight forward. That’s fine. All our brains are wired differently. The film makes it easy because from the start the audience is given a notation of 1 week or 1 day letting us know what is going on. Nothing more is needed to explain what Nolan is doing.

Next, I’ll examine the dialogue or the rather shockingly lack of dialogue in Dunkirk. Normally, I am someone who loves dialogue and believes it is the best way to show character. But with this movie, I find myself appreciating its sparseness. It simply does not need it except where appropriate. According to the Wikipedia entry for the movie the dialogue for the movie is only 76 pages. A page of dialogue for a script equals 1 minute of spoken dialogue. This gives the impression the movie is only 76 minutes long movie, but it is 1 hour and 45 minutes long.

Nolan’s philosophy toward the movie was to focus solely on the event itself. No need for big speeches from military men or Churchill. No need to show the enemy. In fact, the only interaction the movie deals with the enemy are pieces of paper which floated down upon the French and English soldiers printed by the Germans showing them how they were surrounded on the beach in the opening few minutes. That’s all that is needed; not discussions between characters as to what it means. In a traditional war movie we would get nothing but grandiose speeches by military men and politicians and explanations for just how difficult each decision was.

The lack of dialogue creates an intimate sense each character is operating on instinct. For example, dialogue would have ruined a scene in which two characters pick up the gurney of a wounded soldier left behind on the beach after a German bombing. They realize he is still alive and know their best and only chance to leave is to pick him up and hustle him to the medical boat, the only boat authorized to leave. Through their actions the audience gets what they’re doing. They know what they’re doing. To have them talk about it would quite frankly come across as 1) info dumping purely for the audience’s sake, and 2) make them sound stupid. The reality of it is I doubt many of the people sat around discussing themselves or the war. It simply wasn’t what was on their mind. What mattered was surviving long enough to get off that damn beach and go home.

The most dialogue comes between the interaction of a captain of a small civilian boat enlisted by the navy, his son, his son’s friend, and a stray army officer they pick up along the way. This is effective because it focuses the attention on heroes we aren’t used to seeing on screen. The audience later finds out why so many civilian vessels were enlisted to help near 400,000 men get off a beach.

Finally, I’d like to examine Nolan’s approach to characters. I am someone who lacks stories to be character-driven rather than plot-driven. Characters are how I make, or don’t make, an emotional connection to the overall story. However, Dunkirk is truly plot-driven. That’s not to say it doesn’t have characters the audience doesn’t care about. With a large ensemble cast, a mixture of well-known actors such as such as Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy, Nolan instead focuses primarily on young, unknown actors and their story.

From the start Dunkirk is intentionally vague with information about the characters, their backgrounds, and honestly, even their names. No matter what medium, the audience gets information early on about why we should or shouldn’t like a character. We usually get bits of relevant backstory so that the audience clearly understands the stakes for each character. In war movies, the characters are taken one step further in that we also get to know the military men and politicians behind the decisions.

In Dunkirk, we do not get this nor is it really needed. Enough is given so we feel how harrowing each of their stories is. Though it is a historical movie, and it’s easy enough to look up how it ends, I teared up and empathized with the characters. From the army officer pleading with a civilian boat captain to not go to Dunkirk to the young men beaten by the Germans to the air force pilots circling the beach to bring down enemy planes, I had an emotional connection to them.

As a writer, watching a movie like Dunkirk shows how effective storytelling can be when it breaks a few rules. Granted, I think the primary reason why it works is because of top notch acting so the sparse dialogue, non-linear storytelling, and lack of character development works. Though I know there are books which employ one or all of these traits, I think it’s more difficult. The movie certainly challenged me to re-examine my thoughts on plot-driven stories. I don’t know if it has inspired to me to try my hand at a non-traditional story structure; I think that is something very few have a talent for. But like reading outside one’s genre, it’s important to examine how other mediums tell a story.

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Weekly Musing: Strengths and Weaknesses

Every writer, no matter their level of experience and success, has their strengths and weaknesses. Some write such realistic dialogue the reader can hear the characters as if they were sitting next to them having a conversation. Others are able to weave incredibly tight, complex plots. Still others are able to juggle multiple points of view. While others excel at creating unique, compelling characters. But for every writer with a strength or two or three, they also have a weakness or two or three.

And that’s okay. In theory anyway. There is a ton of information about how to improve every aspect of your writing. For someone like me, a born perfectionist who overthinks pretty much everything (thanks anxiety), getting bombarded with such makes me feel that in order to get anything published I must excel in all areas. On an intellectual level I understand this simply isn’t possible. How many of my favorite books and authors could I point out the strengths and weaknesses?

So below are what I consider my strengths and weaknesses at this point. Admittedly there will probably be more weaknesses since I tend to focus more on the negative and how to improve. Anyway, typical massive writer insecurities aside, here we go!

Strengths

Dialogue: One of the things I always appreciate in any story is dialogue. Dialogue for me is not only what gives me a sense of who a character but the story as well. I’m also fascinating by how people talk. Their choice of words, regional slang and dialect, accents, cadence, it’s all interesting.

Since characters are usually the first things that pop into my head I often find I hear their voices before I see them. So when I’m writing I try my best to capture their voice as much as I can. I think in some small way I’ve been successful at this so far. It does take me a lot of effort to really listen in a scene and make sure each person in a scene sounds like himself or herself.

One Point of View: This year I came to the realization trying to juggle more than one person’s point of view isn’t my thing. Recognizing all of the stories I’ve written have always been from one point of view, one character’s point of view is what I’m much better at. My brain concentrates better on just one task and in this case, one person’s story. I can stay inside that person’s world and mind better and it’s easier for me to see things as they do.

Oddly enough, while I don’t particularly care for first person, I noticed a fair amount of the stories I’ve had published have been the ones written in first person. Maybe because this point of view allows more freedom in truly getting deep into the emotion of the person something third person can restrict.

Weaknesses

Setting: I’ve been trying to make more of an effort to bring settings out more. After all it’s what helps ground readers into the world. It’s a struggle for me because in my head I can see it perfectly but it’s difficult to figure out how to translate that visual onto the page. Stories I’ve written of late I think I’ve done a better job but more often than not I worry if I don’t have enough information. What confuses as I study what I read are authors who have the ability to use very few words to give the reader the setting while others go into beautiful, lengthy descriptions. As a reader I respond to both so as a writer I’m unclear as to which route to take.

Descriptions: In a similar vein to setting, descriptions trip me up. Mainly in regards to what characters look like and how best to introduce this when the reader first meets them. There are two schools of thought as to what is the “best” approach. Does one do a quick paragraph description or does one sprinkle details throughout? Personally I like getting the description all at once. I tend to forget what people look like unless there is some kind of memorable feature or if the author beats me over the head with reminders.

As I writer I struggle with seeing the characters in my head yet can’t seem to find a creative way to describe them beyond generic things like blue eyes, curly blonde hair, short, tall, has a limp, etc. This struggle filters over to what people are wearing. Since I tend to write sci-fi, fantasy, and historical fiction, what people wear and look like tend to be kinda important because it gives a visual cue to the reader as to what kind of person these people are.

Endings: I struggle mightily with endings. Beginnings I’ve gotten better at seeing where the appropriate place is to start the story and middles are easy. But endings, yikes. My spouse was the first, and still only person, to point out I seem to have a tendency to kill off characters as a way to end a story. This reeks of lazy writing to me.

Since I do some form of outlining, I’ve concentrated more on endings. I’m also listening to the most common feedback I get that my endings are weak. Honestly getting suggestions for what might work helps spurn my creativity. At least I can take some comfort in I’m not the only person who struggles with endings as many, many books, TV shows, and movies leave many of us unsatisfied.

Crowd Control: This is a term I use to refer to whenever a scene has more than two characters. I find managing two people easy enough. Anything more, oh dear. I have a tendency to forget people until rereading the scene. And heaven forbid there be anything else in the scene like weapons or animals to consider. I’ve started to take up diagraming on a piece of paper where people are physical at in relation to others to have a visual.

Emotion: This one could be in my head. Probably is. But I think I have yet to truly be comfortable allowing a character to be 100% honest in a story.

While I do well writing from a character’s point of view, I feel myself pulling back. I’m scared to dig deeper at times to let some kind of uncomfortable emotion come out for fear of offending. It’s not unusual for an author to be blamed for something a fictional character does. A fictional character is not a reflection of the author. Yet fear of judgment and possible hate email holds me back from allowing any kind of raw, pure emotion aside from what is socially acceptable from coming out.

This is something I view as pretty detrimental to my characters and ultimately my career and probably the one weakness which worries me the most. It’s also the one I think there is no amount of advice which can be given other than my own internal work to get over it.

 

So there you have it. My strengths and weaknesses as I see them right now. It is my hope I can turn some of these weaknesses into strengths. But I must keep in mind, and every other writer must keep in mind as well, that you cannot excel in all areas. Play to your strengths and work on your weaknesses.

Weekly Musing: Reference This

In the past I’ve talked about a variety of resources I found helpful at the time. Re-reading it I realized how much my idea of what is useful has changed. Some of the tools I listed I no longer use. Either outgrew them or decided to try others.

One of the biggest changes has been in the kinds of books I consider to be valuable reference materials. I’ve expanded my scope beyond grammar and editing books to books on such topics as superstitions, what various traumas to the body actually look like, to how to better write emotions. No matter what genre you write, be it general fiction, mystery, fantasy, historical fiction, etc. below I’ve listed a few books I think every write should have on the bookshelf.

Story Elements and Novel Writing – Writer’s Digest produces several books on story elements.  These are great for strengthening your strengths and providing help on weaker areas. For example, I think my biggest strength is dialogue yet I still have a book on it. I also have a book on characters, emotions, and viewpoint. Never know when characters might start sounding alike or when I struggle to find the right “voice” for a character.

What I personally focus on is having multiple books on my weak areas. For me I believe that it is setting and descriptions as well as plot and structure. I struggle to translate the world and people I see in my head onto paper. Also, since I consider myself more character-driven, making sure the plot makes sense and has scenes that support it I struggle with.

I think every writer should have at least one book on beginnings, middles, and endings since very few writers, if any, are proficient in all three. I think it’s also great to have a book on these since I see so much emphasis placed on the first sentence, opening chapter, or first 50 pages that it’s no wonder books fall apart in the middle and sputter to an end. If we want our readers to keep coming back we need to look at our manuscripts as a whole.

And like any writer, I have a few books on how to write a novel. There’s an overwhelming amount of books out there. Some claim you can write a draft of one in as little as a month, others set more realistic goals (unless you’re slow like me) of 90 days. Still others focus on how to write the kind of novel that will get people’s attention. I decided to go with a couple because too much information can be a bad thing.

Emotions and Personality Types – I was naturally born with a gift/curse to empathize with both real and fictional people. In my head and heart their emotions tend to be felt as much as if they were my own. Yet I frequently struggle to set those emotions on paper. This makes me feel as if I’m not doing the characters justice.

I heard about a book called The Emotion Thesaurus via an article. What I really appreciate about this book and the subsequent follow-ups The Negative Emotion Thesaurus and The Positive Emotion Thesaurus is that they aim to help writers get out of the rut of describing the same emotions in the same way. In the original book the authors include physical signs, what a particular emotion feels like internally, and mental responses to name a few of the categories. In the two follow up books they take things further. They include associated thoughts, behaviors and attitudes, related secondary emotions, positive and negative aspects, and even examples from TV and film.

Another book I’ve found useful is the Writer’s Guide to Character Traits. Unlike the emotion thesaurus series, this books provides deeper analysis. In addition to listing various personality types, the author offers how personality differs in children and adolescent. Other features which appeal to me are discussions on psychological disorders, criminal types, creating a family, and love, marriage and other kinds of relationships.

The Human Body – I’m not necessarily referring to having Grey’s Anatomy nearby, but I do think it is important to have books dealing with the human body. For example, I have a book on poisons, body trauma, and more than a few books on weapons. Although not quite related, I even have a book on survival. Never know when a character will wind up on their own in the woods or desert or ocean.

If you think only crime and mystery writers need these kinds of books, think about this way. Say you write historical fiction and have a scene involving a battle. The time period dictates the weapons and equipment involved, but you’ll want to make sure injuries and deaths inflicted are plausible.

Or if you write fantasy, perhaps the book on poisons can be of use. Maybe your protagonist likes to coat a particular kind his or her weapon of choice. What would using poison plus their weapon of choice due to a body? Again, having a book on body trauma can be helpful for describing the wound.

Myths, Symbols, Superstitions, and Legends – Again, no matter what genre you write in, why not consider adding a few of these books? While I’ve yet to use my books on superstitions, symbols and signs, and mythology, I feel they are valuable. Who knows, maybe I could have a character obsessed with Nordic mythology who uses it guide his or her life.

Think only fantasy or horror writers would benefit from these? Think of it like this. Say you write mystery. Perhaps the bad person leaves behind a series of symbols. Maybe instead of using the most recognizable symbols in your country, you cast your net wider and look to another part of the world. What does this say about the antagonist? Is he or she from that area? A person obsessed with the culture? How do you go about narrowing your field of suspects? Maybe your cast includes an archeologist who has worked in that region, an anthropologist specializing in that culture, and a native of that region. Maybe the real culprit is none of them and is someone who wants to frame one of those people for an unrelated personal reason.

 

Having a variety of reference books beyond the usual writerly ones is a great way to get inspired. If you’re stuck in your story, consider perusing through a book of superstitions. Or when you’re editing and want a better way to describe a character being sad. Grab your books on emotions. Not only does it add more realism, it can make our work more interesting and unique. And you don’t need a ton of books to help you. All the books I listed are condensed and brief, general information. Many of these are geared toward writers and are easy to understand. Their just jumping off points and can be used in conjunction with websites and other books.