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Author. Word gatherer. Developmental editor. Speaker. Wayfinder. Encourager.

Scene Tip: Opposite Emotions in Dialogue

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 17•17

Autumn has crept into our region with glorious colors and shades. We’re starting to get heavy rains here, but for the past few days the nights were crisp, days were sunny and mild, and leaves seemed to be changing day by day. Every errand, every trip around town is color-infused.  I feel like the autumnal palette of golds and scarlet and russet is lifting me up after sorrowful weeks and months in this country. I so appreciate how the seasons can anchor us, don’t you?

Last Saturday I met a friend and we attended a showing of the Metropolitan Opera transmission of Norma in a movie theater. I’ve never followed opera though it’s always interested me. In recent years I’ve been hearing haunting arias in different films and when the film ended I’d sit as the credits rolled trying to identify the music that had stirred me. I decided to learn more about opera and discover the source of those arias.

In this series a host is backstage at the Met and interviews the stars, the management, the director so the theater audience gets a delicious behind-the-scenes peek into how the show is staged, the director’s research, and how the stars prep for the performance. Joyce DiDonato is playing Adalgisa  in Norma and the host asked her about the highlights in the  second  act. She mentioned a duet that was coming up where two principles sing the sang melody, but are singing different lyrics and are feeling different emotions.

And her comments set me to thinking. I’d witnessed this dynamic in the first act, but her suggestion clarified the power behind those soaring duets. Something similar is happening in many fiction scenes if you think about it. Often the best scenes pit two characters with different agendas and reactions against each other. A classic is this “Snap out of it!” exchange in the romantic comedy Moonstruck starring Cher as an Italian widow and Nicolas Cage as a moody baker. She is engaged to his staid and hopelessly timid brother, Johnny, but she’s powerfully attracted to Ronny.  The morning after they had sex Ronny wants to pursue the relationship and she wants things back the way they were, to retreat into her safe existence.  You can find the scene here:

Good dialogue  is immediate, it reveals your characters, builds conflict,  moves the plot forward, and develops or exposes problems in relationships. The hottest dialogue exchanges place characters in the midst of a sticky situation or struggle.

  • Vying for power, dominance, a power exchange.
  • Arguing who is right, who is wrong.
  • High-stakes bargaining.
  • Reveals coercion and evasiveness.
  • Characters surprised by how they react differently to the same event or crisis.

If your dialogue seems sluggish, spice it up, pare it down, give it breath.

Other tips to keep the dialogue sizzling:

Cut to the chase–dialogue is real-life conversation on a strict diet.

Raise the stakes–make the characters’ differences key to the plot and the issues at hand important.

A well-written dialogue scene ends with one character somehow changed.

Avoid static conflict like bickering, irritation

Give each character an agenda–in fact give all your major characters an agenda throughout the story.

Give the character’s differing or opposite values.

Use dialogue to show a character’s evolution or arc.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by SNAP/Rex/REX USA (792986fu)
FILM STILLS OF ‘TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT’

Use subtext to insert a layer of meaning and emotions beneath the conversation.  Unease, flirting, embarrassment, distracted–all can be shown in subtext.  If you’re into classic movies revisit some of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s scenes. Now that’s sizzle.

Keep it focused—don’t let your characters veer off on tangents as happens in life.

Use props to reveal subtext–there’s a reason characters used to smoke a lot in films and television series.

Avoid repetition of key words, ideas, statements.

No preaching. Unless it’s an actual sermon. No uninterrupted speech because it’s dull.

Engineer misunderstandings if it suits the plot.

Interrupt just as it happens in your life and mine.

Be wary of using  direct question and answer sessions. This works best in a courtroom scene.

Look up at the stars…

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 07•17

“So remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that  you don’t just give up.” ~ Stephen Hawking

Dr. Seuss advises

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 05•17

Writing simply means no dependent clauses, no dangling things, no flashbacks, and keeping the subject near the predicate. We throw in as many fresh words as we can get away with. Simple, short sentences don’t always work. You have to do tricks with pacing, alternate long sentences with short, to keep it vital and alive….Virtually every page is a cliffhanger–you’ve got to force them to turn the page.

Be the Change

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 04•17

Amid our lovely unfurling autumn here in the Pacific Northwest, the world seems to be crumbling. Tune into the news and one nightmare after another–monster hurricanes, a devastating earthquake in Mexico, and the senseless mass shooting in Las Vegas–keep happening. Then there’s climate change.  Living in the now has never seemed harder. Trusting humankind more difficult.

So what’s a writer to do?

Use your rage, grief, and compassion for change. Write it out, speak it loud, lead. The world needs writers and clear thinkers and change makers. We cannot wait for our government to enact laws or address climate change, or finally say no to the NRA. Sure, we can nudge and rattle our senators and congress people; sure we can attend town halls or visit a congressman’s office, cast our votes, and join organizations. And yes, do speak out on social media, sign petitions, march, protest, show up.

But if you’re a writer, mostly you need to write. Fueled by your passion, your anger, your worry. Like a weathered barn full of old wood and dry hay, blazing, engulfed in flames.

You cannot hold back afraid of the fire; you need to be the flame.

And here’s the  odd truth about writing during tragedies and hard times:  it doesn’t matter what form you choose, it’s simply vital that you do it. Often the hardest truths are faced in fiction.  So create your elaborate fantasy series; write your gritty memoir; plot your scary thriller.  Form is secondary. First comes connecting with readers, telling stories, revealing your humanity.

If you want to Tweet your outrage, post your sorrow, or send off an opinion piece to your local paper, go for it. Just don’t sit around wallowing or stewing or endlessly watching CNN. Instead turn the horror of intentional cruelty into accessible stories.

Dig down. What if your YA series features the character you most needed as a kid or your protagonist is who you most longed to be? Imagine the power in those stories, the heart you could pour into it. What if you wrote about what scares you? What if you wrote instead of disconnecting, hardening to the madness of our times?

We cannot change the crappola that’s happening overnight. But we can keep it from overwhelming us.

Instead of hating our leaders think about the traits you admire in true leaders. Would it make sense to shape your protagonist from them? What about traits that terrify you?  And what kind of villain exposes our frailties? Or do you want to create a seemingly unstoppable  monster?

In all these real-life horrors we’re witnessing other people’s vulnerability. Life is oh so fragile.  How do you want to portray human vulnerability? The harshness of traumatic experiences? How you can make readers ponder larger truths? Do you want to reveal the irony of certain situations? Do you want to expose motives like greed or racism? What inescapable truths do you want to explore?

Or do you want your stories to give readers a softer place to land than the reality we’re inhabiting? Immerse them in a story where somehow the troubles can be managed by the ending? Or a story that is simply an escape? Do you long to comfort a troubled populace?

Fully inhabit your body. Feel your heartbreak or your rawest, emptiest places within. Feel your compassion for all that’s been lost.  Treat yourself with tenderness when the world is burning around you. And then write.

keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

October

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 01•17

Write Your Ending First

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 20•17

Rains finally arrived on Sunday to our parched region and for the past three nights I’ve fallen asleep to the lullaby of rain coming down. With devastating hurricanes terrorizing the south Atlantic and yesterday’s earthquake in Mexico, it seems selfish to complain about weather these days, but there have been wildfires raging for months here and I’m massively grateful for the rain.

Now onto the topic of this post: I want to suggest a way of writing  endings. As in the climax scene in novels, memoirs, and short stories. The emotional high point of your story.  If you’ve read my books or attended my lectures or workshops you might have heard me talk about how writers should know their endings when they start a story. Now, I realize that there are many, many ways to write a first draft. And that shoulds from people like me can drive you a batty. That some people consider the first draft as a process of discovery and getting to know their characters.

Nothing wrong with learning about your characters and unearthing the meaning of the story as you go along.  But if you’re serious about completing drafts, getting published, or breaking out as a writer, aiming towards your ending with laser focus is extremely helpful.

By now most of the world knows about J. K. Rowling and her Harry Potter series. You’ve probably heard about how she was a struggling single mother when she first hatched the idea for the series and started writing. It took her 17 years to complete the whole series. But what you might not know is that she also knew the ending for the  series from the get-go. This means that knowledge shaped every book she wrote, every character and subplot she included, every death and tragedy that happened. Here’s a fascinating documentary JK Rowling A Year in the Life that explains her background, influences, and process.

Here’s another idea you might want to consider: write your ending first. Before the first chapter or introduction. Nothing fancy. Just the bull’s eye you’re aiming for. Think about it.

The ending is actually a writer’s starting point. A target. And if you don’t like it, or your ideas change or deepen as you go along, well, then change it. It’s that old ‘not written in stone’ concept.

Still aren’t convinced?

  • Writing the ending first will keep your from wandering and meandering as you plot.
  • It forces you to focus on the resolution to the story problem and the protagonist’s goals.
  • Instead of looking back when you reach the climax and trying to figure out if you’ve laid a proper route along the way, you can write with foresight. It means you can also add foreshadowing as you go along.
  • This method is simply more efficient and will save you time.
  • It will help you weave in thematic significance.
  • It will give you insights about how much backstory to include.
  • It’s motivating.

Keep writing, Keep dreaming, Have heart

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 14•17

“That’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.” Walt Disney

Winter is Coming so Move Forward

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 07•17

Yesterday was the full moon, also called the harvest moon. I haven’t seen the moon since Saturday because nearby wildfires, more accurately the smoke and ashes from them,  have shrouded the moon and stars.  Our region is grayed by a perpetual dusk, ash is falling eerily, and the air is nearly unbreathable. Gazing around the gloom I’m reminded of scenes from Cormac McCarthy’s nightmare tale in The Road.  

Last weekend a kid shot off fireworks in a pristine wilderness in the Columbia River Gorge, setting fire to thousands of acres of forest including old growth trees. The region is in mourning for this jewel of the Northwest, though on day six of the inferno firefighters are gaining some control. Meanwhile, the whole state has been ablaze, more than 300,000 acres, especially in southern Oregon and we’re just weary around here. We’re ready for rain.

And then there is the constant litany of bad news:  scary, monster hurricanes wrecking havoc in the south Atlantic, Houston and Louisiana still recovering from devastating Hurricane Harvey. North Korea, a rogue nation with an unstable leader is firing off test missiles. Donald Trump seems to have no idea how to govern. Hard times, but you already know that.

I spent the Labor Day weekend mostly indoors (watering is my hobby this summer so there were many forays outdoors to salvage flowers and thirsty tomatoes) and used the indoor time to organize my office, clean out files, and toss out old paperwork. And while it might take a series of disasters to bring all my filing up to date, I’m making real progress.

This week kids are back in school and so the neighborhood is quieter until they spill out of the buses in the afternoon. Well, the neighborhood is quiet because no one is outdoors choking on the smoke. It was only a few weeks ago that we gathered to watch the eclipse and something primal and rare and powerful took over. Somehow I feel like the cosmic effects still linger, don’t you?  Like it was a celestial reset. A new beginning.

As summer dwindles into autumn perhaps you can hit ‘reset’ too. On your writing. You can amp up your stamina, pick up the pace, shake up your routine. Because time is running out  to achieve this year’s writing goals. Despite the dangerous weather, our shaky leadership, fires raging. Because if you cannot write through hard times then you’re not a writer.

It’s pretty simple. You need to move forward no matter what it takes. Tamp down your rage and sorrow and worry. Or write using it as fuel. Whatever it takes. You need to block out all the noise of our times. You need  to stop circling around your pain, your outrage, your worry. Because not writing makes all this crap worse.

Maybe you can start planning for NaNoWriMo. Sign up for a class. Outline a novel. Revise a draft. Sure, plan another picnic or barbecue or trip to the coast. And pick those ripening tomatoes. But time is marching forward, autumn is almost here and winter is coming. Sync yourself with the changing season, align with hope, not despair. Re-enlist your purpose for writing. Because writing just might save you.

Keep writing,  keep dreaming, have heart

September

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 02•17

We’re writers, let’s bring solace and decency and justice to the world.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 19•17

All I know is that I wasted all these years looking for something, a sort of trophy I’d get only if I really, really did enough to deserve it. But I don’t want it anymore, I want something else now, something warm and sheltering, something I can turn to, regardless of what I do, regardless of what I become. Something that will be there, always,  like tomorrow’s sky. That’s what I want now, and I think it’s what you should want too. ~ Kazuo Ishiguro