Sunday, May 27, 2012

12 Useful Writing Tips for your Second Draft

University of Westminster
On a recent glorious sunny summer Saturday in London I attended a Raindance course with Linda Seger on writing SCENE and DIALOGUE.

Yes, I've been a published author for over a decade but it's always good to have reminders, things to check as you go through a draft. And no, her class wasn't for novelists like me but for screenwriters. Still, I reckoned I might be able to adapt some of her tips. "Great writers are both artists and craftspeople," said Seger at the start of her one-day seminar. "Technique is what you fall back on when the writing doesn't flow naturally."

She didn't really give us techniques, but she did show examples of good scenes and dialogue. While she was speaking, I swished her advice around in my head with stuff I already know from studying John Truby and Blake Snyder, and came up with the following DOZEN USEFUL WRITING TIPS which I will apply to the second draft of my current work in process.

TIP 1. The main job of a SCENE is to move the story forward. If a scene doesn't move the story forward, bin it! A scene should also be specific, accurate and visual thus letting the reader/viewer know WHERE & WHEN the story is taking place. One of Seger's favourite CATALYST SCENES is the murder scene from Witness.

TIP 2. A TURNING POINT in a scene is when circumstances make it impossible for the character to keep doing what he's doing. Most scenes have two but some have more. We watched the Rolling Bus/Oncoming Train scene in The Fugitive.

TIP 3. Don't forget to ESTABLISH where your action is taking place and show the GEOGRAPHY of the location (house, town, spaceship, etc) if necessary. Seger showed us the opening sequence of Downton Abbey as an impressive example of this.

"Crossing the Threshold"
TIP 4. You often get a SHOW STOPPER scene at the end of Act One. Christopher Vogler would call this CROSSING THE THRESHOLD, Snyder would call it Fun and Games and Truby might remind us that act divisions are irrelevant. Seger showed the Family Dance Scene from Billy Elliot. She also talked about what she called MAGIC & WONDER scenes. These all seemed to involve flying and music. Her example was the flying and music scene from Out of Africa.

TIP 5. Be creative in transitions from one scene to another, try using an EMOTION instead of an OBJECT to ease the segue. A relative of Seger's claimed people only have four main emotions: MAD, GLAD, SAD OR SKEERT (scared). However, the emotion Seger chose for her example was more subtle; she showed us transitions showing characters being REFLECTIVE (i.e. pensive) from the Paul Haggis film Crash.

TIP 6. When in doubt, use an odd number of pages/minutes, turning points, or characters in a scene. Seger claims the optimum length for scenes seems to be 3 1/2 minutes or multiples thereof: 7 minutes, 14 minutes or -- rarely -- 21 minutes long. (eg. the Opera Scene in Moonstruck)

TIP 7. Like SCENES, the job of DIALOGUE is to advance the story. Your main character will often have a MISSION STATEMENT (e.g. Jerry Maguire). Truby would call this the PLAN. Sometimes it can be stated quickly and simply.

TIP 8. Seger then breaks her own rule by suggesting an easy trick of making EXPOSITION dialogue more interesting: have two characters question your protagonist, (or bring him the problem), instead of just one. Then they can bicker, interrupt each other, show different agendas, etc. A good example of this is the exposition scene in the lecture hall near the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (I kept thinking of Blake Snyder's POPE IN THE POOL technique.)

TIP 9. Add excitement to a scene by giving some of the characters ATTITUDE. (Presumably this increases conflict, which is always interesting.)

TIP 10. We all know about using different rhythm, sentence length, vocabulary, dialect, etc, to differentiate one character's dialogue from another but what about introducing SOUNDS? A character could sniff, snort, slurp, grunt, even imitate animals as Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer do in The Last Station. (A good example of this in literature can be found in True Grit, where author Charles Portis has one of Lucky Ned Pepper's gang make animal noises instead of speaking. It's funny and memorable.)

TIP 11. Dialogue can even communicate a story's THEME, via two characters putting forth their world views: Character A is the mouthpiece of the author and presents the theme, while Character B presents the contra-theme. Seger showed us a scene from Amadeus, where Salieri defends his hatred of Mozart to a priest. Truby would call this the OPPONENT ARGUMENT and suggest that a story's TAGLINE is another way to present THEME. Blake Snyder would argue that this is the job of the OPENING IMAGE. I say: why not use all three?

TIP 12. As the author of a series where my hero has to learn how to understand people, I especially liked Seger's reminder that SUBTEXT in DIALOGUE could be expressed in non-verbal BODY LANGUAGE. She ended by showing us clips from the episode of Frasier where Frasier and Lillith have an innuendo-packed debate on television, with amusing hair-loosening and body language.

Unlike many of my more talented writer friends, writing rarely just flows with me. I need all the techniques I can get. I hope you find some of these useful as well.

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  1. griselda heppel9:44 PM

    Very useful. Great to be given actual examples from films - nails the points you're making perfectly. Incidentally I think one of the best examples of economical plot construction is Die Hard, which I love. My children think that's hilarious (Me that is. Not Die Hard.)

    1. Die Hard is a fabulous film with a great plot. Everything works!