The audience settles. House lights dim. The curtain opens. The stage lights come up. On the stage, an opulent den. Big cushy leather chairs opposite an ornate desk. Well-stocked bookshelves along the wall. A globe on a stand. A character enters stage left. He reaches into his waistband and pulls out a revolver. He slides open the drawer and places the gun in, and slides it closed.
I guarantee you, from that moment on, everyone in the theater is focused on that drawer. The specter of it being within his reach charges every line of dialog with a subtext of impending confrontation. A normally innocent inquiry becomes a possible trigger to pull the trigger. “What did you do yesterday?” suddenly has a dark shade as the aura of the gun raises it to an interrogation tone.
It is the same as if a wife character learns she is pregnant but hides it from her loser husband. A husband who has lost his job and the family doesn’t know. The kid who flunked out but can’t tell his parents. The fiancée, who lost the engagement ring money at the racetrack. These too are guns in the drawer. They shape the trajectory of the dialogue and the character’s actions and responses to things.
Got it? Secrets. Below the text, subtext, charge the text. Now as a book coach I have found a very common error in most manuscripts is when the writer places the gun in the drawer, but it does not affect anything. Like it was never there. Secrets are prime character motivators. Secrets yield lies. Lies yield mistrust and mistrust yields suspense. All that takes a simple scene, sequence, or book and charges it with subtext.
For more writing tips to help you author your next novel, check out my online course, From Writer to Author. It will open up the drawer to your next manuscript!
A booth at a diner in Jersey, the knee knocker seat on the LIRR, or on my lap sitting in a chaise on the beach in Puerto Rico, even in a hotel room at a writer’s conference. All these admittedly non-romantic settings in which I have penned much of my 6 published novels, 4 number ones, and three pending manuscripts, have one thing in common. A space that, beyond everything else, allowed me to write, compose, imagine, edit, polish, and author a manuscript. That space can best be visualized as a box with its four corners drawn from my left ear to the left edge of the screen and from the right side of the screen back to my right ear. Everything outside that “thought rectangle” dissolves away, goes out of focus, and becomes the comforting background lullaby that has underscored my “performance” whenever I wrote.
For me, when the idea is breaching in the birth canal, there’s an immediacy to getting it out, regardless of the purity or quiescence of wherever I happen to be. I have even knocked out a few paragraphs on my iPhone in the back of a funeral parlor during a wake. Even in my home, I may be out on the balcony, on the kitchen table, or with my laptop on a snack tray, usually with a TV, radio, or some other background noise that has accompanied my workspace all the way back to homework in elementary school.
I am lucky enough to have met and conversed with some of the most well-known and prolific authors on the planet or listened to them interviewed at writer’s conferences. Question 5 or 6 is always, “Do you have a place, or time or routine when you write?” and some have elaborate ceremonies and rituals and others the simple; “my desk every day from 10-2.” Some need a fresh pot of coffee or progressive jazz on the stereo, or in one very famous case, toke up on prodigious amounts of weed. (And he is at the very pinnacle of a successful author!)
Again, just last night, a vintage episode of the Dick Van Dyke show aired in black and white. The one where Rob, a head writer for a TV show, is driven to become a novelist. The setup is that he can’t get to writing because of all the domestic distractions of his suburban New Rochelle home, which are frustrating his efforts. The solution to the marital friction that this occurs results in a suggestion from his wife Laura that he go to a cabin in the woods for a few weeks and concentrate on his book. Well, of course, he winds up doing all kinds of foolish things which delay and get in the way of his writing. Finally admitting that it was him, not the setting, that is the problem, he puts the idea of being an author on the shelf having learned that his novel just wasn’t ready to come out yet.
I find that notion to be paramount amid all the reasons a writer can’t author. In my class, From Writer to Author, at the online Academy of Creative Skills.com, I address the ‘internal space’ that we need to create in order to satisfy that need to create.
Rob does write one thing in all those days, the only line he could manage, the dedication, to his wife expressing his love and admiration of her. His line after she reads it and does her trademark, “Oh, Rob…” he adds, “Now all I have to do is write a novel to hang on the end of it.”
Aw, 60’s TV, where everything works out in 28 minutes and 30 seconds, including commercials.
By the way, I wrote this at 6:30 in the morning, on a snack table, with the sun coming up over the skyline of New York splashing over the Hudson River to my right, – the iHeart radio from my iPhone on in the background.
Ready to embark on your journey From Writer to Author? Check out my online course for 15 steps to elevate your writing craft!
It is good to remember that all Characters should possess some level of love. An easy way to identify this is to ask; who or what would they sacrifice it all for? The landmark movie Citizen Kane had strong Character-love connections. I believe this empathetic connection to the audience is one of the reasons that keeps the film on most critics’ top ten list. The love connection that impressed me most in the story, was an older man who recollects a girl he saw on the ferry once in his youth. He then admits there isn’t a month that goes by that he doesn’t think of her, he doesn’t even know her name, but he has carried her with him through the years, every month!
Kane’s love, his clumsy attempts at buying love, forcing it to be a part of his life, are the tragic aspects of his love/empathy connection. These serve as setups to his ultimate love mystery, the last word he uttered on this mortal coil, “Rosebud.”
All these years later, since my first view of “Citizen Kane” on the Million Dollar Movie on Channel 9 in the ’60s, the scene in that movie that hardly a month goes by that I don’t think of is that old man, carrying that girl into old age. Here is that little sequence, brilliantly written by H.J. Mankowitz and Orson Welles: Bernstein is the seasoned citizen, Kane’s chairman of the board being interviewed by Thompson, the young reporter who is trying to unravel the Rosebud mystery.
I have been in the company of some of the most famous and Highest Net Worth Individuals on the planet. In unguarded moments of candor, they eventually get down to what they really want, (when they seem to have everything a human could ever want) namely, to be in love with someone. Sometimes it’s generic; just the need to feel that way about someone, sometimes it was specific, a person.
At moments like that, you just know that somewhere in the world, a million times over, some hard-working couple, struggling to make ends meet, facing the vicissitudes of life are holding hands and each other in their hearts. Each feeling like they are the lucky one in the relationship to have found the other.
In my new book, I pay homage to this notion in a subplot where the sexiest actress in Hollywood, the one with the sex tape released on the internet, and two academy award nominations, tries but fails to seduce the husband of my pregnant protagonist. In that unusual, for her, outcome, (she always gets any man she chooses to act stupidly;) she has a life-changing event. One that she admits, “we only play at in movies” but she never believed actually existed; a love and commitment to one another which survives above all else.
That’s worth all the money in the world, and is invaluable when building your Character’s empathetic attraction. In my online novel writing course, From Writer to Author, I teach a lesson on building empathetic characters. I’m proud to announce that my course is now open for enrollment! Find out more at academyofcreativeskills.com or by clicking on the image below!
Editor’s Note: The actor Everett Stone, who played Bernstein, didn’t let the typo in the script pastrol stop him from saying, parasol. Proving that empathy is often more important than grammar. This is a good “first draft” lesson to would-be authors everywhere.
In a previous blog, I credit Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest as the reason I write thrillers. It wasn’t until I had years of writing and learning under my belt that I discovered what his secret was.
Alfred started in film as a graphic artist making dialog cards for silent movies. Before sound came to movies, the film would show an actor “speaking at, or to, or with another character on the screen. Immediately after that, the film cut to a card that had the printed dialogue the audience just saw the actor mouthed. In the silent world of movies back then, the dialogue was very sparse. Actors had to show emotion, often with bigger-than-life gestures and posturing. A certain amount of lip-reading gave the audience satisfaction when the card that followed proved that they had guessed right about what the actor silently said. Every once in a while, a non-dialogue card would appear. This card was the narration explaining some essential notion, change of heart, or change of scene the audience needed to know to avoid confusion. A famous one was ‘meanwhile,back at the ranch…’ Usually cut in between the hero making googly eyes at the pretty girl in town while the cattle rustlers had their pickings of his herd back on his spread.
The sparsity of words in a silent film forced filmmakers to be extra judicious in the words they sparingly shared with the viewer. This beyond anything else, taught Hitchcock the power of the beat. The point of inflection, reversal, or expansion of the story or plot. It’s what separated a narrative film from the other choices moviegoers of that day had the choice of seeing*. And when you do break the story down to the most essential words, you realize very quickly what is driving the story forward and what is causing it to stall. The beats were the cards he created. The frequency and duration of the cards, both dialogue and narration set the tempo of the film – the beat. Delay the beat, and you create suspense! He was the master of suspense because he knew which beat and how long to delay it!
When we author a book it’s important to honor beats and make sure we are building our story on and around them. How do you know what a beat isn’t? Hitchcock explained it to François Truffaut once with the observation; What is drama after all but life with all the dull bits cut out? When you cut the dull bits out of life, or in your manuscript, the beats are pretty much what you are left with.
I go into the beat a little deeper in my really affordable eBook on Kindle, Intentional Thoughts from The Accidental Author, and take a deeper dive into these essential building blocks of good stories-well told in my online course, From Writer to Author, available HERE!
* Amazingly these were just motion pictures featuring 20 minutes of a train chugging along or boats on a river or a San Francisco streetcar. No plot, no story, just the fascination with the motion of the “flickers.” Thomas Edison who invented modern motion pictures was amazed that in his showing of the train movies, new-to-film audiences actually ducked or ran aside as the train came towards the camera!
If you recognize the above as the five essential elements of a novel, then you’ll appreciate the writer’sresolution. For many, it’s “I resolve to finish that book!” For a thousand times that many, it’s, “Start that book!” And for a much smaller group, it’s “Write a better book!”
If any of that sounds familiar, here’s mine, “I resolve to help writers become authors.“
Not just a “gonna get to that someday” affirmation, but the train is already leaving the station, which is an appropriate analogy since I devised the following on the subway. I’ve created a series of online lectures to help writers of any level elevate their craft and get to the next plateau in their careers.
Followers of this blog for the last ten years know my story well, but to encapsulate it: I stumbled into my first manuscript, which became my first published novel and my first number 1 bestseller…by accident. Hence my handle as The Accidental Author. I am, quite literally, the last guy on the planet to have 4 number 1 bestsellers. The route I took was practical, empirical, and devoid of traditional literary frameworks.
Admittedly, what I will be sharing with those who take the 15 classes that I am offering at The Academy of Creative Skills is my journey to the satisfaction of being a published author many times over. This unique perspective on the craft of writing will have many touchpoints and resonant notes for writers who are heading towards authoring commercial fiction, screenplays, and even non-fiction. After all, it’s always about a great tale well crafted.
As a premier to the course or as a standalone compendium of tidbits, nuggets, and cues, based on my experiences and lessons in developing my craft, I’m offering an ebook on Amazon entitled, Intentional Thoughts from the Accidental Author. Chock full of lots of handy dandy insights and goodies about the art we love so much.