NOTE: I started this blog in Jan 2008 with excerpts from my presentation on writing. To start that from the beginining click on "Archives" and work backward. The current material is updated weekly. Let me know what you think of these. – John
Whereas description captures the outer world, inner responses in a scene give a reader access to intangible thoughts and feelings. In an attempt to appear objective, many firsthand writers omit character responses and their writing is spiritless. Emotions and insights are like the close-up shots in a film. Without them an audience feels disconnected, at too far a distance…
In narrative, a beat is the unit of the characters’ state of being which leads to the next unit. If you studied composition in school, you were taught to write essays and papers by the logical development of ideas. You were taught to have a topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph, to develop your main idea, paragraph by paragraph, and to draw a conclusion at the end. The basic unit of development was the concept of each paragraph.
That’s not how you do it in narrative. Yes, as in exposition, you want a development of your subject by units. You don’t want everything to be a blur, a jumble. But in narrative, the basic unit of development is the beat, not the paragraph. So you have chapters, scenes and within the scenes, beats. Each beat is a micro-realization of the state of awareness of the feelings and thoughts of the characters, which evolve beat by beat by beat.
–Tristine Rainer, Your Life as Story
description (how much?–the telling detail, not adjectives or adverbs, get the audience to judge, use of motion, atmosphere—setting mirroring character, conflict or theme (remember “opposites,” especially between characters and within the central character)
introducing characters through action (suggest singularity and temperament, gesture–body language)
dialogue—emotional subtext (each character in a scene has an agenda) summary dialogue, indirect dialogue, direct dialogue, hidden dialogue.
realization–reaction, inner response, ie, emotional beat, not the paragraph is the unit, and its tempo is the changing intensity of your story.
changing place (and time), begin scene with establishing dialogue or description.
CHARACTER SUBTEXT Answer these questions for the major subject(s) in your piece:
A. Who is the love in this person’s life?
Think about the emotions this person has in a relationship with whom he or she is involved. Limit your answer to a single choice.
B. What is this person fighting for?
What or who interferes with this subject accomplishing his or her goals. Most of us don’t live for realities, but for dreams of what might be.
C. What of special significance has happened to this person the year before, or if it’s more appropriate, what will happen to your subject within the next year?
D. Describe the humor in this person’s life.
Often we alleviate the serious burdens of life by doing things that strike others as humorous. Identify the sense of humor of your subject or something he or she does that strikes others as humorous.
E. What opposites exist in this person?
What fascinates us about other human beings are their inconsistencies (if there is love, there is bound to be hate too; if there is a great need for someone or something, there is a resentment of that need as well).
F. What kind of discovery is this person likely to make about himself or herself?
Is there some kind of a revelation your subject will have?
G. How does this person affect someone with whom he or she is interacting?
Particularly with regard to someone the subject should care about.
H. What is the source of this person’s importance?
Reputation, money, power, title? Answer this for your subject.
I. With what place does the person have a close association?
It can be a geographic location, an office downtown or a summer cottage, or it can be a particular room in the house–a workshop in the basement, the kitchen, a couch in front of the TV…even a car.
J. What is intriguing about this person?
(When I think about my father I’m fascinated by how similar we are and how different we are.)
By Mike Royko (from Sez Who? Sez Me)
If a man ever reflected a city, it was Richard J. Daley and Chicago.
In some ways, he was this town at its best—strong, hard-driving, working feverishly, pushing, building, driven by ambitions so big they seemed Texas-boastful.
In other ways, he was this city at its worst—arrogant, crude, conniving, ruthless, suspicious, intolerant.
He wasn’t graceful, suave, witty, or smooth. But, then, this is not Paris or San Francisco.
He was raucous, sentimental, hot-tempered, practical, simple, devious, big, and powerful. This is, after all, Chicago.
Sometimes the very same Daley performance would be seen as both outrageous and heroic. It depended on whom you asked for an opinion.
For example, when he stood on the Democratic National Convention floor in 1968 and mouthed furious crudities at smooth Abe Ribicoff, tens of millions of TV viewers were shocked.
But it didn’t offend most Chicagoans. That’s part of the Chicago style—belly to belly, scowl to scowl, and may the toughest or loudest man win.
Daley was not an articulate man, most English teachers would agree. People from other parts of the country sometimes marveled that a politician who fractured the language so thoroughly could be taken so seriously.
Well, Chicago is not an articulate town, Saul Bellow notwithstanding. Maybe it’s because so many of us aren’t that far removed from parents and grandparents who knew only bits and pieces of the language.
So when Daley slid sideways into a sentence, or didn’t exit from the same paragraph he entered, it amused us. But it didn’t sound that different than the way most of us talk.
Besides, he got his point across, one way or another, and usually in Chicago style. When he thought critics should mind their own business about the way he handed out insurance business to
his sons, he tried to think of a way to say they should kiss his ass He found a way. He said it. We understood it. What more can one ask of the lan- guage?
Daley was a product of the neighborhoods and he reflected it in many good ways—loyalty to the family, neighbors, old buddies, the corner grocer. You do something for someone, they do something for you. If somebody is sick, you offer the family help. If someone dies, you go to the wake and try to lend comfort. The young don’t lip off to the old; everybody cuts his grass, takes care of his property. And don’t play your TV too loud.
That’s the way he liked to live, and that’s what he thought most people wanted, and he was right.
But there are other sides to Chicago neighborhoods–suspicion of outsiders, intolerance toward the unconventional, bigotry, and bullying.
That was Daley, too. As he proved over and over again, he didn’t trust outsiders, whether they were long-hairs against war, black preachers against segregation, reformers against his machine, or community groups against his policies. This was his neighborhood-ward-city-county, and nobody could come in and make noise. He’d call the cops. Which he did.
And, for all the swinging new life-styles, that is still basically Chicago. Maybe New York will let porn and massage houses spread like fast-food franchises, and maybe San Francisco will welcome gay cops. But Chicago is still a square town. So City Hall made sure our carnal vices were kept to a public minimum. If old laws didn’t work, they got new laws that did.
On the other hand, there were financial vices. And if somebody in City Hall saw a chance to make a fast bundle or two, Daley wasn’t given to preaching. His advice amounted to: Don’t get caught.
But that’s Chicago, too. The question has never been how you made it, but if you made it. This town was built by great men who demanded that drunkards and harlots be arrested, while charging them rent until the cops arrived.
If Daley sometimes abused his power, it didn’t offend most Chicagoans. The people who came here in Daley’s lifetime were accustomed to someone wielding power like a club, be it a czar, emperor, king, or rural sheriff. The niceties of the democratic process weren’t part of the immigrant experience. So if the machine muscle offended some it seemed like old times to many more.
Eventually Daley made the remarkable transition from political boss to father figure.
Maybe he couldn’t have been a father figure in Berkeley, California; Princeton, New Jersey; or even Skokie, Illinois. But in Chicago there was nothing unusual about a father who worked long hours, meant shut up when he said shut up, and backed it up with a jolt to the head. Daley was as believable a father figure as anybody’s old man…