Trottier Introduces Screenwriting

Trottier_review_20210826

David Trottier. 2019. The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Over the past year I wrote my first novella as a romantic-suspense. As a career-long nonfiction writer, this was a significant milestone for me, but it was not without a few hiccups. My first editor informed me that a male protagonist would not appeal to the primary audience for romantic suspense—older women. Meanwhile, my second editor described my work as simply a thriller—guys write thrillers; women write romance—my daughter informed me. When my critique group suggested my writing style was more like a screen play than a novella, I decided that I needed to know more about screenwriting.

Introduction

In his introduction to The Screenwriter’s Bible, David Trottier writes:

In this volume, I help you begin the screenwriting and script-selling journey and guide you along the way…every aspect of screenwriting is covered in this work. That’s why I call it The Screenwriter’s Bible (xi).

At 462 pages, Trottier faithfully completes this objective better than any writer’s handbook that I have seen and he does a reasonable job of distinguishing screenwriting from other writing genre, as the designation of seventh edition attests.

Background and Organization

Trottier has a master’s degree from Goddard College and is a graduate of both the Hollywood Scriptwriting Institute and the Hollywood Film Institute. He describes himself as a screenwriter, script consultant, and teacher. He is the author of numerous books and screenplays.[1]

The Screenwriter’s Bible divides into five books:

  1. How to Write a Screenplay: A Primer
  2. Writing & Revising Scenes: A Script Consultant’s View
  3. Seven Steps to a Stunning Script: A Workbook
  4. Proper Formatting Technique: A Style Guide
  5. How to Sell Your Script: A Marketing Plan (ix-x)

The first book is preceded by an introduction and the final book is followed by a challenge, list of resources, and an index.

Difference between Screen and Novel Writing

Contrast clarifies. Trottier writes:

A novel may describe a character’s thoughts and feelings page after page. It’s a great medium for express internal conflict. A stage play is almost exclusively verbal; soap operas and sitcoms fit into this category. A movie is primarily visual…it is primarily a visual medium that requires visual writing. (4)

This distinction between novels and screenplays may help explain why women tend to be more avid readers while men consume their fiction primarily through movies.

Knowing this distinction can help authors lean into the strengths of their genre both in writing and marketing. In a novel, one might easily express the thoughts of a protagonist by simply writing in italics, but in a screen play someone would need to mouth the words, something like an aside or soliloquy in a Shakespeare play.

In marketing, one might easily think to rewrite a screenplay swapping the gender of the protagonist to match the strengths of a particular “talent” (Trottier’s word for an actor or director). While fiction writers will often talk about their “what if” scenarios, I find this exercise easier in the screenwriting context because the medium is inherently more applied, more adaptable. Imagine trying to sell your favorite actor (or actress) on your script in an elevator. Your drama might easily morph into a comedy once the gender is swapped, a transaction easier to make at least in my mindscape.

Formatting a Screenplay

Trottier’s description of the writing process is innovative and helpful in expanding one’s toolset as a writer in any genre, but my only connection to acting arose when I dated a thespian in graduate school. Trottier’s guidelines on formatting a screenplay changed all that.

Trottier describes a spec script as “speculation that you will sell it [a script] later; in other words, you are not being paid to write it.” (237) Previously, I thought that a spec script described the format, not the marketing, of a particular type of script. This is an important ah-ha moment because marketing is baked into script writing much deeper than other genre, a distinction lost on other author books that I have seen on screenwriting. Later, when he talks about copywriting (328-29), the marketing problem again presents itself as a clear distinction in screenwriting. Most authors do not need to register a copywrite because no one is likely to steal a book that does not sell enough copies to pay for the editing—I registered my first book mostly out of ignorance. A script is different because more money is potentially at stake.

Script formatting fits into this discussion of marketing because the immediate audience for a spec script is the reader (story analyst), an assistant to a producer who does the actual evaluation of your script (237). After you have read several hundred of such scripts, formatting distractions are an annoyance. Trottier simply says: “The spec script is the selling script.” (238)

The annoying 12-point Courier New font style performs the function of making it easy to translate script pages into screen time, one page per minute. New characters are introduced in all CAPS. Dialogue is indented. Trottier convinced me to purchase screenwriting software almost immediately as I read through this section in his book.

Assessment

David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible requires an investment of time to read through it. Having finished it, I am convinced that I am a better writer for having spent the time and I will likely convert my novella into a screenplay as a result. Trottier’s movie suggestions are also worth the ticket of admission. This is a book that belongs in every author’s library.

Footnotes

[1] https://www.keepwriting.com/davet.htm

Trottier Introduces Screenwriting

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

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Jepson: Spiritual Practices in Writing

Jenson_review_20210928Jill Jepson. 2008. Writing as a Sacred Path. Berkeley:  Celestial Arts.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The journey home requires travel in foreign lands.  The prodigal son could not love his father until he had left him; his older brother never came to love his father (Luke 15).  Much like contrast reveals the outlines of what we see, sometimes it is helpful to explore foreign lands in finding our way home.

In her book, Writing as a Sacred Path, Jill Jepson teaches writing through exercises in alternative, especially eastern, spiritual traditions.  She writes:

One of the writer’s highest goals is to express the inner workings of the human spirit in ways that evoke understanding and empathy. By making it possible for people of different regions, beliefs, and cultures to communicate, by allowing people to share each other’s experiences and views of the world, the writer acts as a warrior for peace (198-199).

Because many screen plays employ eastern spiritual practices and sometimes even eastern themes and settings, it is not surprising that this book would be published in California and writers there would find these exercises helpful.

Jepson writes in 10 chapters organized in 4 parts:

1. The Mystic Journey (Transcendent Awareness; Crazy Wisdom),
2. The Monastic Path (The Writer in Silence and Solitude; The Writer in Community)
3. The Way of the Shaman (Darkness and Healing in the Writer’s Path; Sacred Ground), and
4. The Warrior Road (Honor and Courage in the Writing Lift; Strategy and Skill for the Warrior Writer).

She describes these 4 parts as gateways to the sacred (9). The first two chapters (The Call and The Sacred Gift) function as an introduction. A conclusion (Walking the Sacred Path) follows chapter 10. The conclusion is followed by endnotes, a bibliography, an index, and a brief description of the author. Jepson describes herself as: a writer, traveler, linguistic anthropologist, and college professor (246). She knows her stuff.

Chapter 2, The Sacred Gift, bears special attention because it focuses on the critical role of stories in affecting personal and social change (21). The writer, as storyteller, plays a pivotal role in culture. Citing Buddhist and Hindu origins, she defines the idea of a mandala—a geometric depiction of the cosmos making our universe understandable—the opposite of a monkey mind—a chaotic, rapidly changing state of mind (21). A mathematical model or graph might, for example, function as a mandala. Jesus’ use of parables might form such mandalas and illustrate the transformational potential of stories.

Jepson applies her lessons through spiritual exercises which she annotates as: sacred tools. The book provides dozens of these tools. These exercises can have a couple steps or be rather lengthy. One tool, for example, is a visualization exercise:

1. Write your experience,
2. Imagine your opponent’s experience, and
3. Create a character (195-196).

Walking in someone’s shoes is certainly an old idea, but it is also a helpful writing exercise in any tradition.

Jepson has written an insightful writing manual. Writing as a Sacred Path is a fascinating book. The blend of Christian and pagan references, however, could easily lead to spiritual confusion. Christian spirituality begins with God, not with us. When we engage in spiritual practices designed to enhance our talents or power over ideas, we stray from Christian into pagan practice. This is a journey that writers need not and should not take lightly.  Nevertheless, the journey home requires travel in foreign lands and we are better for it.

Jepson: Spiritual Practices in Writing

Also see:

Friedman Brings Healing by Shifting Focus from Individuals to the Family 

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

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Penn Whispers to Speakers

Joanna Penn, Speaking

Joanna Penn.  2014.  Public Speaking for Authors, Creatives, and Other Introverts.  UK: Creative Penn Limited.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In analyzing the results of the launch of my first book last month, a surprising finding emerged.  While my online sales were frustratingly few, sales during personal appearances were stronger than for typical authors [1].  The question then came up:  should I be speaking more?  And what should such speaking look like?  When I stumbled across Joanna Penn’s book, Public Speaking for Authors, Creatives, and Other Introverts, I immediately ordered a copy.

Background as Speaker

Mind you, I have been speaking publicly for most of my professional life, both as an economist and as a pastor.  However, economists typically address audiences of other economists and pastors typically address a familiar congregation.  In neither case is the audience wholly unfamiliar; in both cases the audience response is fairly gracious of what is being presented [2].  Public speaking to unfamiliar audience to speak about a book is a bit more out there than I am accustomed to.

Organization of Book

Penn states her writing objective as follows:  In this book, I’ll share everything that I know as a professional speaker and introvert (11).  She breaks this objective down into 4 parts:

  1. The practicalities of speaking;
  2. The psychological aspects of speaking;
  3. The business side; and
  4. Interviews with professional speakers (11).

In other words, this book focuses on things that speakers do and worry about; it does not focus on how to write and deliver good speeches.

The Mix

An important point in my own choice of this book is that Penn straddles 2 worlds:  public speaking and book writing and publishing.  While there is a lot of overlap these days between these 2 worlds—speakers that write (politicians, for example) and writers that speak (best-selling authors that do appearances)—the mechanics of these 2 professional realms are filled with thousands of unwritten rules, details, and networking requirements.  If the subject matter were different, an entirely different set of observations would arise.  Think of the worlds of IT gurus or sports figures or film stars. Penn’s niche and expertise speaks specifically into my space as a writer/publisher.

Audience

Penn drills down into her audience a bit deeper by focusing on the fears and anxieties of “introverts” and “creatives”.  In some sense, she is carving out a niche here with not just authors, but authors focused on creative writing.  Perhaps even more specifically female, creative writers (17-19) [3].

Types of Speaking

Two sections of the book were of special interest to me.  The first focused on 6 types of speaking.  Penn lists those as:

  1. Keynote/Inspirational speaking;
  2. Content speaking;
  3. Workshop presenting/facilitating;
  4. Mc/Event chair;
  5. Chair of panel or panelist; and
  6. Reader/performer of your own work (24-25).

I suppose that an author presenting their own work might fit into most of these types, depending on the work.  One type of speaking on my mind as I read the book is not on the list:  radio interviewing.

Role for Video

The second section of special interest to me was her discussion of using video.  For example, Penn sees 6 uses for video:

  1. Self-improvement tool;
  2. Evidence of speaking ability;
  3. Bonus material for spicing up sessions;
  4. Testimonials;
  5. Marketing; and
  6. Premium product for customers (133-134)

Although I have produced a number of You-Tube videos for Leader and Media Guides [4] to promote my book, video remains a source of anxiety for me [5].  Seeing the scope of use for video helps to reduce anxiety by demonstrating the range and real value of their use.

AIDA Principle

Penn’s background in marketing broke through in her comments on social media.  She cites the AIDA principle:

  1. Attention.  Social media content lets people know you exist and what you do.  Hopefully, your content is interesting and informative
  2. Interest.  Once people know you exist, they have to know how to find you.
  3. Desire.  Once people know that you exist, they need to know that they can trust you.  Are you authentic or simply interested in attention?
  4. Action.  Once people know you, how to find you, and trust you, then when an appropriate occasion arises they may turn to you for advice and products (129-130).

AIDA makes sense not only in social media, pastors effectively use it by practicing a “ministry of presence”. It also works with animals, like horses [6].

Assessment

Joanna Penn’s Public Speaking for Authors, Creatives, and Other Introverts is a real gem.  Over the years I have read a number of books on public speaking—most on preaching—and this is the first book with real value added in terms of what speakers worry about most—the zillions of details where things go wrong or should be prepared for in advance.  Penn is obviously very readable.  Authors should take special note.

Footnotes

[1] Members of my book club reported that the industry average number of sales for a public book signing was 3 books.  My first two appearances resulted in sales of 8 and 10 books.

[2] Economists sometimes talk about the “prisoner’s dilemma”. Prisoners informally agree without consultation not to “rat each other out”, in part, because of the threat of retaliation in kind. Economists may seem to be a tough bunch to present in front of because of all the tough questions, but the informal agreement usually is to limit questions to the topic at hand—no ad hominem (personal) attacks.

[3] Penn lists her Myers Briggs type as INFJ (18).  This is surprising because her book abounds with details—a big selling point for readers and a classic flag for a sensate personality, not intuitive personality—more like an ISFJ.

[4] Check out T2Pneuma.com.

[5] To borrow a phrase from Garrison Keillor, I am particularly shy of video and Skype where my “face made for radio” might be a liability hard to control for.

[6] A film called The Horse Whisperer (1998) staring Robert Redford and Kristin Scott Thomas, employed a ministry of presence to calm frightened horses (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Horse_Whisperer_(film)).

Penn Whispers to Speakers

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

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Edgerton: Write in Your Own Voice

Voice_08252014Les Edgerton.  2003.  Finding Your Voice:  How to Put Personality in Your Writing.  Cincinnati:  Writer’s Digest Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Let me see.  If you did not know the subject of a book called—Finding Your Voice—what possibilities come to mind?  Perhaps, a doctor’s guide to throat surgery recovery? Or, maybe, lost in the opera house, confessions of a prima donna? Or, better, a citizen’s guide to responsive government…?  Clearly, a bit of context is helpful.

Confession time.  Although I am a writer myself, I read Les Edgerton’s Finding Your Voice:  How to Put Personality in Your Writing, in part, to learn about writing and, in part, to see what he would say about personality.  It is more than a bit ironic that a fiction writer would write about developing an authentic style (voice) in writing.  Much like actors have trouble figuring out who they are—which mask is the real me?—fiction writers must live into the characters they create if readers are going to take them seriously.  It is therefore not surprising that Edgerton finds tension between the authentic style of the writer and the requirements of the story (223).  A chameleon writer might alternatively be considered extremely versatile or simply inauthentic—depending on the amount of experience writing that we are talking about.

Edgerton does not so much promote a particular method as assist the reader in discovering their authentic voice.  This task could be daunting in an age of relativistic morality where the idea of personality—a surface attribute—has been substituted for the older notion of innate character [1].  In a sense, Edgerton deconstructs the wantabe writer like a cook peels an onion—underneath do we find a core personality or just another mask?  Strip away da rules of your English teacher (10); forget about the Critic Nag Dude and beige voice (11); abandon old writing books (15); take reviews (15); go easy on the synonyms (18).  Most interesting is his notion that we must also abandon the voices in our head, so to speak, of favorite writers, previous editors, and cultural stereotypes.  This writer’s exorcism goes on and on (48).  Still, we are encouraged to find a voice that at least conforms to the expectations of the genre that we are writing for.

It is interesting to watch the voice evolve in Edgerton’s own writing.  Early in the book, he assumes an edgy voice—the ex-con, insecurely trying to relate to the reader. By chapter 6 he assumes the more confident voice of a writing instructor.  Later in the book the insecure voice shows up again in the form of name-dropping of other writers and books that might be interesting.  Personally, I preferred the self-confident writing instructor who is not afraid to give me the advice that I need.

What advice did I seek?  Edgerton writes:

Make yourself your intended reader.  By writing to you as your reader, you get closer than at any other time to getting your real voice on the page.  You write naturally (78).

Yes.  Thanks.  That will do fine.

Footnotes

[1] I am borrowing a bit from David F. Wells. 1998.  Losing Our Virtue:  Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

Edgerton: Write in Your Own Voice

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George Researches her Fiction

George_review_20210330

Elizabeth George [1]. 2004. Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life. New York: Harper Collins.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The corona virus pandemic turned me into a full-time writer and aided my transition from nonfiction to fiction writing. This life behind closed doors has given me time to read a lot of craft books. Among the best of these has been Elizabeth George’s Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life.

George focuses on teaching craft. She believes that art, passion and discipline cannot be taught, but the craft of writing can be (x). In her final words, she writes:

“You will be published if you possess three qualities—talent, passion, and discipline. You will probably be published if you possess two of the three…You will likely be published…[if you] have discipline.” (253). For her, craft is a discipline that must be part of any successful writing career so she focuses on teaching it.

Background and Organization

Elizabeth George was born in Ohio, but grew up in California where she earned a teaching certificate in English at the University of California, Riverside and a master’s degree in counseling and psychology. She has received many honors and awards for her detective stories placed in England written with a literary touch.[2]

Writing Away is written in twenty-two chapters divided into five parts:

  1. An Overview of the Craft
  2. The Basics
  3. Technique
  4. Process
  5. Examples and Guides (vii-viii).

The chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by notes and an index.

Research Plows her Ground

Throughout her book, George includes lengthy excerpts of her writing and the writing of others that sometimes seems excessive, but makes it obvious that she thoroughly researches her topics before sitting down to write. This research method is necessary in writing most nonfiction, but George’s preoccupation with research is much more than other fiction authors usually admit in fashioning their craft books.

This research focus allows her two advantages in crafting her fiction. The first advantage is that she is able to consider more plot, character, and descriptive alternatives before committing herself to any particular alternative. Some authors will run through a litany of alternatives in their mind, but she visits her locations and interviews professionals that she writes about with a journalist’s intensity. She also records her impressions as she goes about her work to pick up the smells and sounds of a place that most of us simply scribble from memory. Where my character sketch might fill a page for my main character, hers can go on for pages and include details about family history, education, and flaws.

The second advantage is that she can focus on her literary expression when she finally writes and it helps her to economize on the number of edits required to create a final draft. She talks about this advantage a bit, but the depth of her writing speaks more clearly of how it aids her craft. It is hard to imagine her winging it through her prose, although it rolls forth unpretentiously, not in labored fashion, like you might envision someone gifted in conversation.

Landscape

One measure of a book is whether I can remember anything from it once I put it down. George’s description of landscape fits this description.

George defines landscape as: “The broad vista into which the writer actually places the individual setting of the novel.” (29). You might image an artist starting by choosing the colors to paint a background for images that populate the canvas later, like maybe a baby blue tint in a Chagall painting.

In my own writing project, Masquerade, the landscape for the main characters is oppression of constant work that demands attention every waking hour. When the two main characters meet, they employ costumes to distinguish themselves on the street. It seems cute or serendipitous at first, but grows into a theme in the book—in part, an exposition of identity.

George calls this sort of thing an “internal landscape,” (35) which resonated with me because I had done conscientiously. Knowing that I had done this gave me a theme to develop more completely.

Assessment

Elizabeth George’s Writing Away is must read for aspiring authors who struggle to develop the descriptions in their settings, characters, and plots.

Footnotes

[1] https://www.elizabethgeorgeonline.com.
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_George.

George Researches her Fiction

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Bell: Plot a Good Novel

Bell_review_20200716

James Scott Bell.  2004.  Plot and Structure:  Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish.  Cincinnati:  Writer’s Digest Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Stories spice up sermons.  The pastor’s name, the sermon text, or the admonition may be a bit hazy Sunday afternoon, but you probably remember the stories told.  Stories help us make sense of life and they give it meaning. So what is a story?

Introduction

The heart of a story is its plot, according to writer James Scott Bell in his book, Plot and StructurePlot is the power grid that makes it [the story] happen (6) and connects the readers with the text by answering questions, such as:

  • What is this story about?
  • Is anything happening?
  • Why should I keep reading?
  • Why should I care? (7).

Bell focuses on writing a commercial novel where plot is especially important.  Literary, stream-of-consciousness, and experimental novels place less emphasis on plot, but plot sells the commercial novel (7).

Elements of Plot

Bell advises that plot consists of 4 basic elements:

  • Lead.  A story must be about someone.  The main character is the lead.
  • Objective.  The leading character needs an objective:  a desire or want.
  • Confrontation.  The leading character encounters opposition and outside forces that frustrate obtaining the lead’s goal.
  • Knockout.  All good stories need a knockout ending.

Bell’s book focuses on these 4 components of plot or the LOCK (lead, objective, confrontation, and knockout) system (10-13). Plot takes place in the context of characters, dialog, settings, and scenes (17-20).  Bell reminds us of Alfred Hitchcock’s axiom:  a good story is life with the dull parts taken out (20).

Organization

Bell writes his book in 14 chapters:

  1. What’s a Plot, Anyway?
  2. Structure:  What Holds Your Plot Together.
  3. How to Explode with Plot Ideas.
  4. Beginning Strong.
  5. Middles.
  6. Endings.
  7. Scenes.
  8. Complex Plots.
  9. The Characters Arc in Plot.
  10. Plotting Systems.
  11. Revising Your Plot.
  12. Plot Patterns.
  13. Common Plot Problems and Cures.
  14. Tips and Tools for Plot and Structures.

Before the chapters is an introduction entitled:  Putting the Big Lie to Sleep where he addresses the myth that writers are born, not made.  After the chapters are 2 appendices which give authors a to-do checklist and a format for writing your “Back Cover Copy”.

Outline or Not?

Interestingly, Bell divides the fiction writers’ world into “outline people (OP)” and “no outline people (NOP)”, a division that he admittedly straddles (152).  He honors this division, for example, in his chapter 10 on plotting systems where he offers advice to both camps on how to strengthen the weaknesses of both.  He states:  be true to yourself, but try a little of the other guy’s method (154).  For both camps, he advises:  use the LOCK system and write your back cover copy (155).  For NOPS, he advises:

  1. Set yourself a writing quota.
  2. Begin your writing day by rereading what you wrote the day before.
  3. One day per week, record your plot journey (156-158).

For OPS, he advises use of an index card system to record scenes and LOCK elements (158-69).

Anthropology

Bell’s anthropology is insightful. Bell characterizes identity as a target built around the core self. The rings around the core self are:  beliefs, values, dominant attitudes, and opinions. Changes affecting inner circles spill over requiring changes in outer circles. Outer circles are accordingly easier to change than inner circles (143).  Changes in Ebenezer Scrooge’s character, for example, require visits from three ghosts—the ghosts of Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas future—who remind Scrooge of his true self and how the years have chipped away at it (142-148).  The redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge brings tears to our eyes because each of us have likewise taken that journey.

Assessment

Bell is an engaging writer who offers a lot of examples from movies and novels to make his points.  Movies like Casablanca, A Christmas Carol, and Gone with the Wind offer excellent examples because most readers are already familiar with the plots and major scenes.  These examples make Plot and Structure a surprising page-turner which I suspect most authors (and wannabe authors) will enjoy.

Bell: Plot a Good Novel

Also see:

Brooks Structures Story, Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

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Bell Writes Finishing Well

James Scott Bell. 2019. The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The hardest part of ending a post or book is to end gracefully. It is generally good to offer a chiastic return to your opening comments or to highlight the theme with choice words. But endings also carry emotional weight—it’s like an only child getting on the bus to leave home for college or kissing a terminal relative for the last time. What words should your reader remember as they move on?

Introduction

In his latest craft book, The Last Fifty Pages, James Scott Bell uses a golf analogy to kick off his exposition: “It’s not how you drive, it’s how you arrive.” (1) In other words, the endgame in golf is all about the putting on the green. Bell goes on:

“If there’s one Word that sums up the feeling readers crave in an ending, it’s satisfaction. The word is broad enough to include any type of ending, so long as it is one that leaves the reader in a positive emotional state about the reading experience as a whole.”(4)

Part of this satisfaction comes in tying up loose ends. Citing John Gilstrap, Bell writes:

“Before you kill me, you’ve got to tell me why you did it, and how all of your compatriots fit into the puzzle.”(5)

This sort of egotistic protagonist is common in film, which Bell describes as a classic mistake–the talkative villain (76-77), but it points to the need not to the leave the reader hanging—a better way is to have a minor character fill in details.

Background and Organization

James Scott Bell[1]is a former trial lawyer and author of numerous writing books and thrillers. He attended the University of California, Santa Barbara and graduated from the University of Southern California Law Center. His best-known writing book is: Plot and Structure.  Amore recent book of his, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue,was immensely helpful in my memoir project in 2017 (Called Along the Way).

Bell writes in eleven chapters:

  1. Endings are Hard
  2. What Should an Ending Do?
  3. Should You Know Your Endings Before You Write?
  4. About Act 3
  5. The Shape of Your Ending
  6. The Meaning of Your Ending
  7. Brainstorming Endings
  8. Resonant Endings
  9. Avoiding Common Ending Problems
  10. Some Endings Examined
  11. The Ending of This Book on Endings.

Following these chapters is an author’s note, list of other books, and an about section.

Plotters verses Pantsers

A fairly inane conversation that comes up among writers is whether to use an outline or to write “seat of the pants.” I say inane because only masters of the craft have the intuition to be successful as a pantser; everyone else either is better off starting with an outline or has an enormous among of time on their hands to rewrite their book. 

Stephen King (On Writing) is probably the most famous pantser (9), but no one would confuse him with being a beginner—if I recall correctly, he wrote his first book at the age of about eight. King does not want to outline his book because he writes suspense and argues that if he knows the ending as he writes, then the reader will figure it out and it will deflate the suspense. So he creates tension and a well-defined character, then reasons how that character would respond to the tension. Add a few twists and turns, and you have a King novel.

By contrast, Bell is a plotter. His advice on endings begins with the lead character’s mirror moment (11). The lead character’s mirror begins with a question: is the lead character willing (and able) to grow emotionally (transform) to become the hero that can overcome and win the struggle that is presented? (12) From that moment forward, the author needs to have a vision of how the book will end—this is the light at the end of the tunnel.

High Stakes in Three Acts

Remember that Bell writes thrillers, which implies that thrills are required. All of this happens in three acts and a bit of structure is required. Bell sees this structure summarized in LOCK—leader character is introduced (L), the lead has an objective (O), the is forced into confrontation (C), and the ending needs to be a knock-out (K; 15).

For Bell, the character is introduced in Act 1, but thrown into Act 2 by a life changing threat (14-15). The character cannot overcome this threat without dealing with a serious character flaw. At the end of Act 2, the lead discovers a clue, setback, or crisis that makes resolution possible, but not easy—the lead must be willing and able to meet the challenge a final battle that takes place in Act 3 (16).

Assessment

James Scott Bell’s The Last Fifty Pages is a short-but-informative book on the craft of writing a novel or screen play. Bell illustrates his points with vignettes taken from famous movies, the like Wizard of Oz, the Fugitive, and Casablanca. Authors will love it; I love it—maybe you will too.

References

Bell, James Scott. 2004.  Plot and Structure:  Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish.  Cincinnati:  Writer’s Digest Books. (Review)

Bell, James Scott. 2014. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (Review)

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2017. Called Along the Way: A Spiritual Memoir.Centreville, VA: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.

King, Stephen. 2010. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner. (Review)

Footnotes


[1]http://www.JamesScottBell.com.

Bell Writes Finishing Well

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Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

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Vaughn Argues a Clear Case for Writers

Lewis Vaughn, Writing PhilosophyLewis Vaughn. 2018. Writing Philosophy: A Student’s Guide to Reading and Writing Philosophy Essays. New York: Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As an author, my eyes are always open for good writing books, especial those addressing the needs of nonfiction writers. I am not alone in this interest in writing books. The single, most popular post on this blog in 2013 and 2014 featured a writing book, How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark, of special interest to bloggers.

Introduction

On the back cover of his book, Writing Philosophy, Lewis Vaughn out lines his objectives:

“[This book] is a concise, self-guided manual that covers how to read philosophy and the basics of argumentative essay writing.”

Never having taken a philosophy course, other than philosophy of science as a PhD candidate, I found both objectives instructive. If a philosophy essay is all about the quality of the premises and the conclusions that follow from them, then other departments ought to send their students over to the philosophy department to learn how to write because understanding good argument structure can improve most essays.

Organization

According to Google Books,[1]Lewis Vaughn is an independent author living in Amherst, New York. He writes in eight chapters divided into two parts:

PART 1: READING AND WRITING

  1. How to Read Philosophy
  2. How to Read an Argument
  3. Rules of Style and Content for Philosophical Writing
  4. Defending a Thesis in an Argumentative Essay
  5. Avoiding Fallacious Reasoning
  6. Using, Quoting, and Citing Sources

PART 2: REFERENCE GUIDE

  1. Writing Effective Sentences
  2. Choosing the Right Words (v-vii)

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by four appendices.

Three aspects of this book proved most helpful to me: reading philosophy, how to read an argument, and avoiding fallacies. Let me focus on each in turn.

Reading Philosophy

Philosophy means the love of knowledge. Vaughn writes:

“[Philosophy] is concerned with the examination of beliefs of the most fundamental kind—beliefs that structure our lives, shape our worldviews, and underpin all academic disciplines.”(3)

This focus on argumentation is important so Vaughn offers some key definitions:

“In philosophy, an argument is a statement, or claim, coupled with other statements that are meant to support that statement. The statement being supported is the conclusion, and the statements support the conclusions are the premises.”(5)

He goes on to define the divisions of philosophy (6) as: metaphysics (the study of reality), axiology (the study of value, including ethics, which is moral value), epistemology (the study of knowledge), and logic (the study of correct reasoning).

A fundamental skill for philosophers is the ability to summarize or paraphrase an argument, outlining its premises and conclusions. He writes: “A summary must accurately capture a text’s main ideas in just a few words.”(15) This advice may sound trivial, but summarizing my own books often proves to be an anxiety-producing event.

How to Read an Argument

Vaughn notes that a good premise is either true or false, while a conclusion is a belief that you are trying to support (21-22). He notes that certain “indicator words” flag which is which in an argument. Indications of a conclusion are words like: “consequently, thus, therefore, it follows that, as a result, hence, so, which means that.” Indicators of a premise might be: “in view of the fact, because, due to the fact that, the reason being, assuming that, since, for, given that.”(26)

Vaughn offers interesting definitions of deductive and inductive reasoning, two typically confusing ideas. A dedicative argument offers logically conclusive for conclusions, while inductive arguments offer only probable support for conclusions. Because of the difference in the veracity of these arguments, good deductive arguments are considered valid while good inductive arguments are strong. (27-29) True premises make a deductive argument sound while true premises make an inductive argument cogent. (30)

Worth the price of admission is Vaughn’s treatment of valid and invalid argument forms, what we might describe as logical syllogisms. He outlines four valid forms and two invalid forms. (32-33)

VALID FORMS

 Affirming the Antecedents (modus ponens)

 If p, then q     (premise 1)

p                    (premise 2)

Therefore, q. (conclusion)

Denying the Consequent (modus tollens)

If p, then q           (premise 1)

Not q                   (premise 2)

Therefore, not p. (conclusion)

Hypothetical Syllogism

If p, then q                  (premise 1)

If q, then r                   (premise 2)

Therefore, if p, then r. (conclusion)

Reductio Ad Absurdum

 p                         (premise 1)

If p, then q          (premise 2)

Not q                   (premise 3)

Therefore, not p. (conclusion)

 INVALID FORMS

 Denying the Antecedent

If p, then q          (premise 1)

Not p                   (premise 2)

Therefore, not q. (conclusion)

Affirming the Consequent

If p, then q     (premise 1)

q                    (premise 2)

Therefore, p. (conclusion)

For valid premises, these forms lead to logical conclusions. Consequently, Vaughn advises students to memorize these forms so as to recognize them as they arise in arguments.

Avoiding Fallacies

Vaughn cites two common fallacies that bear repeating: the straw man argument and the ad hominem attack (appeal to the person). The straw man argument is an unfair characterization of an opponent’s argument designed to facilitate criticism while the ad hominem attack is to defeat an argument not by criticizing its weaknesses, but by attacking the person advancing the argument. (89) These fallacies are weak arguments that we hear daily in political discourse and in uncivil discussions.

Other weak arguments that Vaughn (90-98) cites are: appeal to popularity, appeal to tradition, the generic fallacy (attacking the source, not the premises), equivocation (unfair comparisons), appeal to ignorance, false dilemma (comparing two non-exclusive outcomes), begging the question (using a conclusion as a premise to support it), hasty generalizations (generalizing from too small a sample), slippery slope arguments, composition (generalizing from a part of a composite), division (taking a composite to generalize about a part)

Assessment

Lewis Vaughn’s Writing Philosophy is a wonderful writing book that I wish that I had been given years ago. It is concise, helpful, and interesting. Writers in many fields and at many points in their career could benefit from his insights.

Footnotes

[1]https://books.google.com/books/about/Doing_Ethics.html?id=x3P1ugEACAAJ&source=kp_author_description.

References

Clark, Roy Peter. 2013. How To Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.  New York:  Little, Brown, and Company.

Vaughn Argues a Clear Case for Writers

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Brooks Structures Story, Part 2

Larry Brooks, Story EngineeringBrooks Structures Story, Part 2

Larry Brooks. 2011. Story Engineer: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books. (Goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In his book, Story Engineer, Larry Brooks focuses on six core competencies which must be mastered to become a professional writer. Those competencies are concept, character, theme, scene execution, writing voice, and structure (23). In part one of this review, I gave an overview of the book and discussed the first five of these competencies. Here in part two, I will concentrate the last of these competencies, story structure, where Brooks focuses the most attention and reinforces with helpful exploration of milestones, how to work with an outline, and other details.

Introduction

In Brooks’ thinking:

“Story structure is the sequence of your scenes that result in a story well told. Story architecture is the empowerment of those scenes through compelling characterizations, powerful thematic intentions, a fresh and intriguing conceptual engine, and a writing voice that brings it all to life with personality and energy.” (138)

He divides his stories into four parts separated by milestones that drive the plot.

Four-Part Story

Brooks writes:

“The mission of Part 1 is to set up the plot by creating stakes, backstory, and character empathy, while perhaps foreshadowing the forthcoming conflict. Basically, it’s to introduce the hero and show us what he has going on in his life…not for the remainder of the story, but before the arrival of the main antagonistic force (the primary conflict of the story) at the First Plot Point.” (147)

Milestones Separate the Parts

He sees part one as 20-25 being percent of the story and it ends abruptly with the First Plot Point. Part 1 Begins in Peace Ends with Conflict. Part 2 begins with a non-heroic response to this conflict (151). After the midpoint of the story, part 3 shows our hero going on the attack, but ineffectively (155). After information provided in the Second Plot Point, part 4 begins with our hero becoming equipped and emerging as a real hero (156). Brooks summarizes these transitions as the hero starting out an orphan, becoming a wanderer, growing into a warrior, and emerging as a martyr (157).

Brooks writes:

“Milestones are points in your story where new information enters the narrative and changes the direction, tension, and stakes. These milestones appear in the same approximate place, separating the four parts of the story.” (158)

He sees about eighty percent of your story focusing on these milestones, which makes understanding them critical to the structure of the story (159).

Milestones Defined

Brooks cites these milestones: opening scene, hooking moment, inciting incident, First Plot Point, First Pinch Point, Midpoint, Second Pinch Point, Second Plot Point, and resolution scene. He observes:

“If you allow three (or more) additional scenes that setup and surround these milestone moments, that’s at least thirty to forty scenes. Or about two-thirds of your entire story.” (160)

Given the importance of these milestones, virtually everything else in the story focuses on connecting to the next milestone, which makes understanding the story structure important in planning and executing your writing (161). Brooks makes this point repeatedly in his book, distinguishing writers who plan from organic writers who profess not to. Convincing writers to plan their stories is an important theme in this book.

First Plot Point

The First Plot Point introduces conflict into the story. Often the external conflict cannot be resolved until the hero’s inner conflict is dealt with. This is one reason the hero’s response in part 2 remains lame and incomplete. This inner conflict provides a starting point for the character arc of the story where the hero grows into someone much stronger than we see introduced in part 1 (93).

Pinch Point

A Pinch Point is a reminder of the nature and implications of an antagonistic force, unfiltered by the hero’s experience (200), which basically suggests that the hero is not making it all up. In some stories, the mental state of the hero may be questioned, because the response may seem disproportionate to observes not familiar with First Plot Point. The Pinch Point makes it clear either to the reader or the hero that the conflict is real.

Midpoint

The Midpoint comes at halfway through the story and occurs when the hero gains important information about the conflict that is being faced. The information is important enough that the hero ceases to be a wanderer and transitions to becoming a warrior.

Second Plot Point

At the Second Plot comes about three-quarters of the way through the story when the hero gains information critical to advancing on the attack. After this point, the hero is heroic and needs no more new insights, advancing from warrior to martyr, if necessary. The story advances into part 4 where the conflict is ultimately resolved (204-205).

Resolution Scene

In the resolution scene, Brooks writes:

[For part 4] “There is no blueprint for it…[and only one rule] no new expositional information may enter the story after the Second Plot Point that commences with it. If something appears in the final act, it must have been foreshadowed, referenced, or already in play. This includes characters—no newcomers allowed.” (210)

In part 4, our hero exhibits his personal growth and vanquishes his inner demons enough to resolve the basic story conflict (211).

Assessment

Larry Brooks’ Story Engineer is an award-winning book on writing craft that draws on writing both novels and screen plays. Brooks reads easily and he uses examples from numerous well-known books and films. The target audience is authors serious about improving their craft.

 

Also see:

Warren Writes to Grow Characters 

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Brooks Structures Story, Part 1

Larry Brooks, Story EngineeringBrooks Structures Story, Part 1

Larry Brooks. 2011. Story Engineer: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books. (Goto Part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In early July as I responded to my editor’s comments on my memoir, a disturbing thought came to mind. I have just written a novel with 98 scenes (from the perspective of a fiction writer) and I have no idea of how properly to write a scene. I scrambled that afternoon to find a writing book to rectify my problem. This search led me to Larry Brook’s Story Engineering.

Introduction

Of course, Brooks writes about more than how to compose a good scene. He cites his purpose in publishing another book on writing as:

“Interestingly, there are many books on screenwriting that do what most novel-writing books don’t—they show us what to write, when to write it, what follows what, what should go where, and why, and tell us the criteria for ensuring that our creative choices are effective ones. In other words, how to get it done.” (4)

This statement snagged my interest. Yes—I know what the hero’s journey is; no—I am clueless as to how to compose one. My memoir is an example of the hero’s journey, but how to write scenes that use the template effectively is not obvious, having never done it before.

Who is Larry Brooks?

Larry Brooks is the author of three books on writing fiction and has six critically-acclaimed thrillers, including Darkness Bound, Bait and Switch, Deadly Faux, and The Seventh Thunder. He grew up in Portland, Oregon, was educated at Portland State University, pitched [baseballs] for the Texas Rangers, and spent seventeen years in corporate marketing and training business. Brooks lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, and travels frequently as a speaker and workshop teacher at writing conferences.[1]

Outline of Book

Brooks’ six core competencies are: concept, character, theme, structure, scene execution, and writing voice. He structures his book in eight parts around these six competencies plus an introduction (why we care) and conclusion (putting it together). These eight parts divide into fifty chapters with the twenty-two of the fifty chapters devoted to story structure—the hero’s journey. Let me turn to these competencies.

Concept

A concept is a fresh look at an old idea. Brooks advises that a concept should ask a question where the answer to the question is your story. He writes: “story about ballet dancers is not a concept.” But, “what if a ballet dancer loses her leg at the knee but perseveres against great prejudice to become a professional dancer?” (31).

Notice the “what if” in this last statement. Drilling down into your concept with additional what if questions can help expand on your story and provide the fodder for twists and turns along the way (42). For example, what if your handicapped ballet dancer is also African America, a war heroine, child-prodigy mathematician, the daughter of the president, or lived in the nineteenth century? The possibilities are endless.

Character

Brooks looks at the character through the eyes of the plot. He writes: “Character is the catalyst that empowers everything else in your story.” (56) Obviously, in order for a character to be larger than life, this character must be alive, at least on the page. Aspects of character that he notes are: surface affections and personality, backstory, character arc, inner demons and conflicts, worldview, goals and motivations, and decisions, actions, and behaviors (54-55).

Brooks’ insight into character comes in defining its three dimensions: outward appearance, the reason for behaviors, and inner person (64-65). Economists talk about firms in terms of their structure, conduct, and performance, which is essentially the same set of distinctions in different words. These dimensions interface with the plot because outward appearance and behaviors are observed with or without conflict. The conflict in the story, which drives the plot, is the only way, however, that you can reveal the inner person (71). Here is Brooks’ catalyst at work.

An important component of character, known as the character arc, displays “what the character does in the first part of the story probably won’t be the same flavor of action or decision that will manifest in the last part.” (93) The interplay with plot comes when an external obstacle in the hero’s quest cannot be eliminated until the hero deals with his own internal obstacles (94). The hero’s struggle with these two conflicts is an important subplot, according to Brooks (101).

Theme

Brooks explains that “Theme is the relevance of your story to life.” (118) Your story is essentially a case study illustrating a greater truth.  In the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), for example, Jesus illustrates how we should treat our neighbors. The theme is neighborly love and the story illustrates this love. Theme has a sacramental characteristic in the sense that a sacrament is outward sign with an inward meaning. Developing a theme requires careful preparation of context.

Scene Execution

A scene is a dramatic scenario in one time and place that moves the plot (or character) along. It is a transition with a beginning, middle, and ending (229-230). Interestingly, Brooks sees scenes that illustrate character being the primary focus of literary fiction and scenes that move the plot along being the primary focus of commercial fiction (241). Obviously, if the purpose of a scene is motion towards an objective (either character or plot), the context of the scene in the wider story must be known in advance (238-239). For the sake of clarity, a scene should only make a single point. Changes in time or place motivate writing of a new scene (233).

Writing Voice

Writing voice is the attitude that you display as you write. Brooks makes the point that your attitude should be professional, clean, crisp, natural, efficient (247-248). It is a bit like a writer’s personal hygiene—it either goes without notice or it stinks up the place. It is most noticeable in dialogue, in part, because dialogue tends to mark your social position and flexibility.

Brooks notes that “Dialogue is also specific to variables such as age, culture, geography, relationships, and agenda.” (250) Like speech itself, it is hard to fake, prompting Brooks’ watch-phrase: “less is more.” (247)

Because Brooks spills most of his ink on story structure (the hero’s journey), in part 2 of this review will focus on structure.

Assessment

Larry Brooks’ Story Engineer is an award-winning book on the craft of writing story that draws on writing both novels and screen plays. Brooks reads easily and he uses examples from numerous well-known books and films. The target audience is authors serious about improving their craft.

[1] https://killzoneblog.com/about-tkz-and-our-authors. http://storyfix.com/about. @StoryFix.

 

Also see:

Warren Writes to Grow Characters 

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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