Monthly Archives: January 2012

Game Changer: Create An Inner Dialogue Within your Hero, and Your Villain

Things we’ve talked about before:

         your hero’s inner demon, something that likely is explained by backstory and is an obstacle to what your hero seeks to accomplish in your story.  The exposure (to the reader) of this inner demon reveals a second dimension of character depth beneath the exterior one dimensional façade seen by the world;

         the arena, or cultural landscape, within which the hero operates (and comes from), which exerts influence over who they were, who they are, and what they will become;

         dialogue as a window into character.  Nothing says it better than the characters themselves.  Even if they’re saying it to themselves.

Which is the point of today’s post.

Allow me to make characterization even more complicated than it already is. 

If you can grasp this tricky inner dialogue concept, if you can turn the concept into a technique, then you’ll have the chops to make your characters more vivid and visceral than you thought possible, except perhaps in a Lehane novel or a David Fincher film. 

Inner dialogue is precisely what they, and storytellers at their level, do so well.

To identify this, let’s rip a page out of reality.  Just look around your life, you’ll see it – if not hear it – going on everywhere.

People are constantly engaged in an inner dialogue.

With themselves.

It’s not a verbal thing, per se.  People usually aren’t muttering quietly to themselves, nor should your characters, unless that’s part of their deal.

But there is a very clear, often palpable gap between one’s inner thoughts and their exterior behavior and attitude.  That gap is something most people are dealing with right beneath the surface, sometimes 24-7.

The shy person who must contrive a air of confidence and warmth in a crowd.

The insecure person who walks through the world with a cloak of bluster.

The need to fit in, even when one realizes this isn’t who they are.

Faking it in a marriage.  At work.  In church.

Sitting with friends at dinner in a nice restaurant, uttering not a single word, totally checked out.

Hiding hate, resentment, bitterness and fear behind a mask of calm.

Bad moods… that’s an inner dialogue.  Good moods… same thing.  But sometimes all that inner noise isn’t all that obvious.

And in fiction – if not at that dinner table – that’s where the fun is.

This is a common human state of being. 

In life, and in fiction.

The extent to which someone – including your hero and your villain – recognizes the gap between their true thoughts, beliefs, preferences and comfort zones, and the way they choose to behave or appear in spite of them…

… that is an inner dialogue.  A constant tug of war within the psyche.  A devil on one shoulder, a angel on the other.  Or at least, the voice of reason.

If they have no idea how conflicted they are, well, that’s a dialogue of another sort.  Don’t kid yourself, though, most of us not in therapy usually know.  The façade, or the vacancy, is a choice.

So what to do with this?

Before you square off with this dramatic can of worms, think about it.  Go through a roster of people you know, and suddenly you’ll realize how transparent the wall behind which this inner dialogue ensues can be.  The better you know the person, the more aware you are of what’s going on inside them.

They think they’re fooling everybody… but not so much.

Scary, isn’t it.

Chances are, too, because you are human, you are among these inner conversationalists.  All the better to put this to use in your fiction.

Now imagine you’re casting this person – or you — in your story. 

Imagine the possibilities of revealing that inner tension, the inherent contradiction as narrated by an inner dialogue, in a dramatic moment. 

Walking into a crowded room.  Lying about what you did last night.  Asking a girl out for the first time.  Feigning joy while considering suicide.  Whatever.

Recognizing this, you now have another arrow in your quiver of character building weapons.  Go as deep as you like, picking your moments to maximize revelation, tension and complexity.

First person narrative invites this.  But you can pull it off in third person, too.  Start to look for it in the work of names like Stephen King, Dennis Lehane, Jonathan Franzen, John Irving, and probably your favorite writer.

Not a coincidence… this ability to expose inner dialogue is part, a big part, of what got them to where they are today.

Heroes are obvious candidates for this. 

But if you can bring this complexity to your antagonists, as well – who may or may not be human, so write accordingly – you’ll have achieved a new level of depth there, too.  A depth can will immediately set your story apart.

Nothing creates empathy quite like the revelation of humanity.  Eavesdrop on those inner dialogues and you’ll bring a level of humanity to your main characters that will separate you from a largely one-dimensional pack of stories already in the mail.

Need more character?  My book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” goes deep and wide into all three dimensions of character. 

The first issue of the new Storyfix newsletter, “Writers on the Brink,” is three days out.  Expect the unexpected.  Epiphanies encouraged.  You can opt-in — it’s FREE, too — to the right at the top, just above the little monkey head.  That’s me, by the way.  Really.

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What Writers Are Saying About… This Stuff

I’ve dropped nearly 500 posts on Storyfix.  About 425 remain in the archives, the others having migrated to various ebooks. 

Sometimes, when that little voice tells me it’s time to get something new up, I feel like I’ve circled the wagons and don’t have something fresh or worthy enough to add.

And sometimes that’s when the best stuff happens.  Fear is a great motivator.  Stretching is a terrific mantra.  Reaching… not so much.

Goes for our fiction, too.  Step into the fear, but try to avoid stepping on those steamy little piles of, well, you know, that await along the path.

I had another topic in mind for tonight, but as i sat down to write, this one took over.  It’ll keep.  Yeah, I’m pantsing my site sometimes. 

I get a lot of emails from readers.

Aside from the occasional and well-deserved wrist slap or correction – love those, too – the warmest and fuzziest of them are when readers tell me how the Storyfix take on craft is hitting them.  Changing them.  Awakening them to truths and points of leverage that they can apply to their own work.

Here are some recurring themes.

If you see yourself here, know that you are not alone.  And if you don’t, well, there’s value in revisiting the basics and principles that make a story live and breathe.  If someone else is getting this, maybe there’s a limiting belief system — a fatal gene in the writing DNA — blocking it for you.

Here’s what writers are saying about this stuff:

“I can’t watch a movie now without seeing the four-part structure in play.  Amazes me that it’s always been there and I haven’t noticed it before.  I can’t un-see it.”

“I’m amazed to see everything you say about screenwriting applying so directly to writing novels.  Vice versa, too.”

“Universal is univeral.  These principles apply to any kind of storytelling, period.”

“I keep looking for a published story without a first plot point.  Still searching.  I hate rules, I want so desperately for this to be your opinion, rather than a universal truth.  So far it seems to be the latter.”

“I used to be a panster.  Now I see the value in structure, guided by mission-driven narrative and its milestones.  It’s the missing link for me.  Now I can continue to pants, but it’s within a box that doesn’t let me drive over a cliff.”

“After reading some of the blow-back on today’s post, I’ve concluded that our school system has not done an adequate job of teaching children what the work “formulaic” even means.”

“It’s amazing how free and creative one can be when writing between the lines of structural expectation.  Those who claim that structure is restrictive are being boxed in by their own refusal to acknowledge the gravity that governs the storytelling world.”

“Don’t let the bastards get you down.  In every crowd there is always someone who wants to gun down the voice of reason and clarity. Killing the messenger is a subconscious human drive, and some writers would rather type than listen.”

“Because of you I now have to rewrite my NaNoWriMo novel from page one.  Because now I know how all-over-the-place it was.  Actually, I knew it beginning on about November 6th, but now I know why.  I can’t wait until next year.”

“Took me three years to write my last novel.  It sucked.  Took me three months to finish my new one, using the principles to which you ascribe. It doesn’t suck.  Coincidence?  I think not.”

“The principles you teach don’t make writing easier.  They make it possible.”

“It’s like the fog parting.” 

“Why do so many published authors stick to their position that they just sit down and write whatever comes to them in the moment?”  (Larry: because they don’t know, or want to admit, that their sensibilities are already recognizing and applying the principles of story architecture and dramatic theory.  So much more romantic to claim that you’re channeling some cloud-dwelling muse, which is a failed cover for a humble claim to genius. To say that “it just comes to them” is the antithesis of humilityWhen an unsuccessful writer says this, it’s an explanation.  When a famous one says it, it’s hubris.)

“Keep the analogies coming.  Great teaching tool.  My favorite: writing a story without understanding the underlying principles is like thinking you can do surgery because you watch a lot of Grey’s Anatomy.  You can read all the John Grisham you want, but until you can dissect the layers and how he’s building his stories, your patient won’t make it off the table.”

“So many people say there are no rules.  That’s semantics.  Call them what you will, the principles that divide the inbox into two groups — those that work, and those that don’t — don’t care what you call them.  Natural laws are just that, in science and in art.  Gravity still sucks, literally, even if you can’t describe how it works.”  

“Top ten lists… my ass.”

“I’m writing like a fiend now because of your direction– thank you so much.”

And then, to be fair here, there’s always a few like this, from an Amazon.com review on my book, Story Engineering.  It’s my all-time favorite critique, from a 17-year old girl, an unpublished writer who seeks to straighten the rest of us out:

“Going into writing a book, yes, you need a game plan, but you don’t need a roadmap, otherwise it’s not YOUR story being told. Artists don’t use the same sketches; builders don’t take each other’s blueprints. If the story if worth writing, then it will flow easily without too much coaxing.

Now, I hate to bring age into this, but I’m only 17. I am frantically working on a book that I hope to publish on Kindle late this summer. I have worked through many of the problems older writers have in just the past year or two. I have the story laid out pretty well, characters are mildly understood (isn’t it always that way, though? Can you ever really understand your ‘children’?) Some people may learn a lot from Mr. Brook’s book, but I found as I read it that most of what was said I had already learned for myself. Again, I’m not trying to say that somehow I have bypassed the system, or have discovered a secret ‘key’, but everyone has their own way of writing, and mine is not with someone else’s instruction.”

L: So there.

Feel free to add to the conversation.  What has been your experience with the princples of storytelling and the underlying physics and principles that make it work?

Signed up for my new monthly newsletter yet?  First edition of “Writers on the Brink” comes out next week.  It may just keep you from jumping.

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