Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Put Some Drama in your Writing

By Chris Mathews

As a drama teacher and part-time playwright for thirty-two years, I believe dramatic concepts can be applied to other genres. You can put more drama in your writing by understanding dramatic writing.

The Greek word for drama, translated, means to do. In good drama, action grabs the viewer’s attention, for, at the least, all good writing is interesting.

So what is dramatic action and how can it be applied to other types of writing? First, consider what action in theater is not. Dramatic action is not to be confused with action-packed, the sometimes mindless, extravagant thrills of the movies. Dramatic action has purpose. Characters want something, usually from another character.

A director, in analyzing a script, must analyze all of the characters. Director’s define the action of the play, as well as help each actor find what his or her character wants in the play. Actors choose the most active, transitive verb they can find. For example, Cyrano in Cyrano de Bergerac doesn’t just feel unrequited love, he wants to ravish Roxanne with his poetry (Roxanne is the object of Cyrano’s affections). If a character is not fully realized in your writing, try filling in this statement for him or her:
He/she wants + to + strong, transitive verb + object.
Cyrano wants + to + ravish+ Roxanne

Actors and directors look for strong actions because actions are playable; feelings are not. Even in short scenes of dialogue, check to see that each character has a strong, clear action. Actors are often told: you cannot play a quality, avoid the verb to be, acting is doing not being.

Show the character’s driving force through what they do, not just what they say, and the writing will engage the reader. If your writing lacks punch, it probably lacks dramatic action. If your story line is faltering, it may be because your characters are not committed to strong action. Make sure your character is doing and not just being or feeling.

In an even broader sense, conflict drives drama. If there are no opposing forces, there is probably not much drama. If your writing lacks punch, make sure there are forces pushing against each other. In theatre jargon, create obstacles, people or forces that thwart a character from getting what he or she wants.

Shakespeare mastered dramatic action. See how Iago plants the seeds for Othello’s destruction, tricking him with reverse psychology into believing his wife is unfaithful in the following passage:
Cassio, my lord! No, sure, I cannot think it,
That he would steal away so guilty-like, Seeing you coming.

Sometimes, writing can be drama-less because the stakes are too low. A teacher teaching a class could be quite boring, but a teacher teaching students who cannot learn because their home lives are in shatters has the seeds for drama (Freedom Writers). Make sure conflict thrives. To summarize, make sure your characters are doing not just saying, and that conflict drives your work.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Time, the Space, the Noise and the Grace

By Kim Byer

I’ve spent most of my weekend changing a closet filled with turtlenecks and boots into one filled with tunics and sandals. This is my rite of spring: turning my clothes palette from black, gray, navy and brown to white, pink, tan and turquoise. And as I fold one last coat into a lumpy square and place it in the cedar chest, I complete my ceremony.

My chores are over. It’s time to write.

“Not so fast,” says my inner voice. “You need space!”

And so I clear my writing desk. I throw away torn tickets; I stack magazine clippings; I roll strands of used Christmas ribbon into small golden nests. I uncover an expanse of waxed, wooden possibility where I place my laptop. From my desk, I can see my entire backyard. The peach-plum tree is in full regalia, its giant arms waving in the wind, vivid with pink and magenta flowers. It demands my attention. After all, its parade only lasts for two weeks.

I walk outside—I know, I’ll write by hand.

I drag my chair across the lawn and my dog barks, wanting to participate in this unfamiliar game. My inner voice sinks inside the wake of a small plane flying above in the clear, afternoon sky. Lining the wires, the birds are chatty with travel gossip. Nearby, a lawn mower crawls across the new grass, moaning like a monster. My inner voice, agitated, yells, “You need quiet!”

By the grace of God or muse or some cosmic, mystic force powerful enough to quiet dogs, birds, airplanes and inner voices, I forget my excuses and settle into my writing. I scribble in cursive, my thoughts tumbling onto a blank page like Tinkertoys. I catapult sentences through the air with arrows, lines and sweeping X’s. Then, as the soft, beaming sun is slowly replaced by dancing, silver shadows, I circle several handfuls of cogent paragraphs and smile.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Werewolves, Cinnamon Bun Pirates, and Other Ghosts of My Writing Past

By Amanda Simays

My parents are moving out of the house they’ve lived in for twenty years. Which of my belongings do I discard, and which do I make them lug to their new house and store for me until God knows when? My attempts to weed out parts of my childhood bedroom over Christmas taught me a lot about my priorities. Stuffed animals, summer camp t-shirts, graduation paraphernalia? Toss without a backward glance. But my packrat tendencies kicked in when it came to really valuable stuff like old American Girl magazines, my collection of 1967 World Book encyclopedias…and anything I’ve written.

I hang onto almost all of my writing, whether it’s in a notebook or a computer file. Partly because it represents a lot of hard work, but mostly because (to use a cliché), I’m scared to throw out the baby with the bathwater. What if, buried deep in the piles of writing rubbish, there’s a character, a line of dialogue, or even a phrase I might want to use someday?

During the creation of a 150-page novel I wrote when I was about fourteen, I also ended up with an 80-page rival document of deleted scenes. Most of the writing there I can’t see using in the future at all. There is, for instance, a long, digressive subplot about a pirate who’s so obsessed with eating cinnamon buns that even his name, Nubni Mannic, is “cinnamon bun” spelled backwards…and incorrectly. But the description of a character who has “greasy hair the color of a banana bruise?" Hmmm…worth hanging onto…just in case.

Even earlier in my past, my brother approached me with a request to write him a werewolf story, and his instructions were to “make it as scary as possible.” So I did, and it was very scary. You can tell how scary this story is right from the subtle opening:
Hi! My name is Billy. I’d like to tell you something. It all began four years ago when I was eight. One day I was packing for my camping trip with my mom and dad in the mountains. My family just got a new van and station wagon.

We were done packing and we were ready to hit the road. On our way we saw some blood on the road and some dead peoples heads. We saw some signs that said “DANGER."
The story just goes downhill from there, degenerating into a thousand-word gore fest. My brother and I read the story out loud to our dad, expecting him to shiver with fright and proclaim it a masterpiece of suspense. Instead, he was completely disgusted and gave me strict instructions to delete that story and never show anybody.

But I didn’t, and years later, I’m glad I kept it. At the very least, hanging onto very bad writing gives me reassurance of how far I’ve come in the course of my writing life…or lets me have a good laugh at myself.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Thoughts on the Loss of a Friend

By Fred Fields

Standard advice to a writer is to write about what we know. A familiar event in all our lives is the death of a friend or family member. Being such a passion-filled subject, it requires special care, and sensitivity, but it also requires honesty.

Recent events in my life have caused me to examine this very special subject with more interest.

In my life, counting schools and the Army, I've lived in seven states. Three were actually "home", West Virginia, Arizona, and South Carolina, and South Carolina has been home for me and my family for the last half century.

Last week, my family suffered two losses. On Monday, February 13, my mother's best friend from West Virginia died, and on Saturday, February 18, my best friend from Arizona followed her.

It is said that absence makes the heart grow fonder. As with many old sayings, we nod and say, "There's a lot of truth in that." But, there really isn't.

Mother and I were saddened by the loss of our friends. But we were not affected as deeply as were the locals who lived close to them. We both have many happy memories shared with them, but they touched our lives so rarely in the last few years, that their influence has been reduced to nothing but those memories, not often recalled. "Out of sight, out of mind," is another, truer aphorism.

I'm surprised at how casually my life is influenced by these losses. Time was when either of them would have turned my world upside down for a week. Today it's a call to the family, a condolence note, a call to mutual friends, "Include me in on the flowers and food." I'm astonished at my insensitivity, my lack of feeling.

Actually, my sympathy for the surviving families and friends is stronger than the sense of my loss of a friend. Sooner or later, we all die. We must expect that.

As I get closer to my time, my attitude toward death becomes more one of acceptance, and less of fear.

But it's not a happy thought.