From guest author Amelie Bronson comes 6 simple tips for better writing…
If you’re a writer, you already know that it’s not easy. No matter what people say, writing can be a grueling process. And even with your strongest efforts, the writing can still be…well, bad.
The bad news is that there are certain mistakes most writers tend to perpetuate, especially when they’re inexperienced.
The good news is that these mistakes can absolutely be rectified, and your writing can improve before your very eyes, as long as you are willing to apply some lessons.
Make your characters flawed
The no. 1 mistake authors make is that they make their main character fundamentally “good”. The best. They’re a saint, and practically a superhero. Everyone loves them, they’re nice to everyone, they have every positive trait imaginable, etc.
The reason for this is that authors tend to base their main characters on ideal versions of themselves. Thus, it’s not difficult to see how they would end up creating a very subjective, completely unrealistic, idealized self.
But that’s bad writing. It’s not about creating a perfect world for you to live out your fantasies. In real life, people are flawed, and there are no Mary-Sues. People have mean streaks, they are messy, they hurt other people, and they make mistakes.
Consider this: If it’s difficult for you to separate yourself from your characters and give them flaws, then perhaps you should consider basing them on someone else, entirely, or just imagining characters that are primarily realistic, and not necessarily based on someone real.
Give your characters individuality
Along the same vein, a lot of authors display a staggering lack of creativity and imagination when creating supposedly different characters. Not all your characters can look the same, think the same, and talk the same. Especially if they’re all modelled after you, consciously or not.
Just like people in real life, your characters must be unique individuals. That means giving each of them specific quirks, different personalities, conflicting ideas, and like we said, some unsavory traits.
There’s nothing worse than reading a screenplay or a book where every single character talks in the exact same way, because it quickly becomes obvious that they are all alter egos of the author.
Consider this: Make an active effort to make each character as different as possible. Compare and contrast between characters, and if you find that some of them are similar, ask yourself “What can I do to make this character unique?”. It doesn’t have to be something tragic or “weird”; just don’t make them the exact same as everybody else.
Give your world diversity
In 2020, there is no excuse for a lack of diversity in your characters, in the world you are creating, etc. You can easily fall into the same trap of sticking to what you know. And it’s not that writing about what you know is a bad thing, but it’s unrealistic and unchallenging at best, and racist, sexist, and otherwise bigoted, at worst.
Your world needs to be populated by diverse, well-rounded characters of all types. That means both men and women, people of different ethnicities, sexualities, etc. More importantly, each and every one of these people needs to be a properly fleshed out individual. No strawmen, stereotypes, or offensively lacking characterizations.
You know how TV show creators are criticized for writing entirely white worlds? Or how male writers are bashed for including no women, or just very badly written ones? You want to stay as far away from that as possible.
Consider this: If you are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with writing characters that are way out of your own experience of the world, then put some more time into research, read more, talk to more people, ask questions, and form some more complete ideas about a more diverse human experience.
Show, don’t tell
If you’re an aspiring writer, there’s no way you don’t already know this: telling your audience instead of showing them is the greatest sin you can commit in writing. When you go on and on with an exposition, especially in screenplays, you are taking away an opportunity to make your piece dynamic, interesting, and natural.
Your audience should be able to see the action unfold and learn about your characters and about new developments from the dialog. Otherwise, the action may feel static and lackluster.
It doesn’t matter how visually stunning a show is or how big your flatscreen TV, if the plot is explained to you, rather than shown. That is, unfortunately, a problem a lot of TV shows suffer from nowadays.
Consider this: Instead of writing about what happened or explaining it, start working on the scene that would convey that idea. Say, you want to say your character doesn’t have a good relationship with their mother. Instead of literally saying that, why not include a scene where they have a tense conversation, or your character ignores mail from their mother, or she is critical of your character, etc. There are a million ways to show something; pick one, instead of telling.
Keep it tight
You know how sometimes you read a script or a book and it just doesn’t seem to…go anywhere? You’re pretty sure there’s a plot buried in there somewhere, but there’s so much crap surrounding it, that it all becomes just one big ramble.
It’s distracting and boring. That’s why it’s super important to have a clear structure, and then stick to it. If you’ve got a plan of action, then keep things tight around it, and don’t waffle.
Consider this: The audience doesn’t need to hear every thought you’ve ever had. Not because they’re not good thoughts, but because they take away from the point of your screenplay. Plus, it makes it really difficult to actually put in practice. Don’t be afraid to “cut the fat”, so to speak. We’ll go more into that in the next section that talks about editing.
A wise man said that you shouldn’t be afraid to kill your darlings. May have been talking about characters – and you should, if it adds to the plot – but mainly we’re talking about editing. It’s extremely important for any kind of writing, because it takes away the excess in order to allow the brilliants bits of your work to shine.
It can be incredibly hard to self-edit, and it’s understandable that a lot of writers struggle with this part. You wrote every word, so going through them and deleting them can feel like you’re being cut with a knife. The difficulty in “killing your darlings” is precisely the fact that sometimes, you need to make some hard choices and get rid of the parts you love the most.
Consider this: It’s important to be able to see beyond your own vanity and how much you love everything you wrote in order to recognize the potential of your story. A diamond only becomes valuable once you buff out all the flawed bits.
All in all, as you can see, your writing can definitely be improved. It doesn’t matter if you’re making some rookie mistakes; you can always work on doing better in the future. All you need to do is pay attention to what you’re doing wrong and how you can improve on each point.
Whether that’s characters that are too perfect, stunted and unnatural dialog, or a tendency to ramble too much, these are all aspects that can be changed. The more you practice, the better you will get, and as long as you keep these tips in mind, you will improve faster than you think.
In Part 1 of this Writing Insights series, we discussed how exposition is often a necessary evil in scriptwriting for conveying information that your audience needs to know, and how sometimes it’s better to use the visual medium of film instead.
But what happens when visuals aren’t enough? What do you do when you have to use dialogue instead? The answer is to make exposition so interesting that the audience doesn’t notice that it’s there – they’re too engrossed to get bored by the dreaded “info-dump” or feel that the characters are speaking in a way that might otherwise seem unnatural.
There are quite a few different ways to make exposition interesting, though. Here are a few of our hints and tips on how to go about it…
- Ignite the audience’s curiosity about what you’re about to reveal. Pose it as a question – for example, THE MATRIX‘s famous: “What is The Matrix?” – and make the audience want to know the answer. Then, when the answer is given, they’ll already be interested!
- Another trick used by THE MATRIX is including exposition in situations that are exciting – containing striking visuals and action – so that the dialogue is enhanced by what’s going on around it. Morpheus could have explained the rules of The Matrix to Neo over a nice cup of coffee – but instead, he does it through a demonstration of kung-fu.
- Make your protagonist be an outsider. As mentioned in Part 1, we don’t tell people things that they already know – but if there’s someone who doesn’t know the world or situation, then you’ve got a good excuse. And that means that it no longer feels unnatural!
- Think about what else you might be able to convey through the exposition itself. Character is best revealed through action – the things we choose to do, the decisions we make – so consider what you might be revealing about the character who is talking. The titular character of the TV show SHERLOCK comes out with huge amounts of exposition, but it feels fine because it’s in character to show off and it tells us a lot about who he is.
So there are our hints and tips to make exposition interesting. Keep these in mind the next time you’re writing a script, and make sure that your dialogue shines!
When you need to convey information in your script – about characters’ backstories, their relationships, the setting or story – it’s a natural instinct to turn straight to exposition, telling the audience what they need to know through dialogue.
And there’s no doubt that exposition is a necessary evil in scriptwriting. There are always going to be things that need to be established for the audience to understand what’s going on in your story!
Exposition is almost always a problem, though. Firstly, people don’t really talk in an expositional manner – stating a whole load of facts, one after the other – and they don’t tell people things they already know. So exposition often feels fake or forced, seeming to be there just for the audience’s sake.
The other problem is that it often has a negative effect on the story. An “info-dump”, as it’s often known, slows the narrative, putting the story on hold so the audience can learn things. But, overwhelmed by the amount of information being thrown at them, they’ll often just switch off!
So how do you get around this problem? How do you communicate the information the audience needs without boring them, overwhelming them, or making your characters talk like aliens trying (and failing) to impersonate human beings?
Well, the first thing you can do is to fully utilize the visual medium of film, and forget about dialogue entirely…
As a screenwriter, looking at the page all day, it can be easy to get stuck in a world of words. “Surely,” you think to yourself, “if I want to get some information across, someone has to state it out loud.”
But sight is the sense that human beings use the most, and it’s possible to communicate a huge amount about all kinds of things through nothing but visuals. An actor can tell us a lot about a character’s feelings with just a glance or an expression – or even by doing nothing at all!
The famous “Married Life” segment from UP is a great example of how to use visuals well. Decades of marriage are summarised – complete with information about the characters, their relationship, their families, and the things they go through – in four short minutes, and without a single word being spoken.
The power of visuals applies to world-building, too. The famous opening shot of STAR WARS sees Princess Leia’s tiny ship being pursued by the massive Star Destroyer of Darth Vader, and the difference of scale immediately tells us a lot about the two sides. Darth Vader and the Empire are powerful and dominant, while Princess Leia and the Rebel Alliance are the underdogs.
So whenever you think you need to use exposition to get some information across, stop for just a minute and think. Maybe there’s a way to get things across without anyone having to speak a single word. Try to picture things instead. Don’t forget – fundamentally, you’re not just writing a screenplay, you’re writing a film as well!
Keep an eye out for Part 2 of this article, where we’ll be talking about those times when you can’t use visuals – and how to make exposition interesting, so that the audience won’t even notice it’s there!
Every year without fail, there’s a question that I can’t seem to answer. To this day, it remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in the world of cinema: is THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS a Halloween film or a Christmas film?
To some, it’s obvious. “It’s both, isn’t it?” they say. This stop-motion animated classic (usually associated with Tim Burton, although actually directed by Henry Selick) tells the story of Jack Skellington, Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, who grows bored of his usual holiday and decides to take over Christmas instead – so of course it’s both.
I’ll admit that this answer may be right, but it doesn’t help because it doesn’t tell me when I should be watching the film. Do I watch it at Halloween or Christmas, or at some strange midpoint on November 27th? Which set of celebrations should it be a part of?
This year felt like the year to try to resolve the issue. With WriteMovies running our first ever Horror Award and announcing the winner on Halloween, we’ve read lots of scripts and watched lots of films that made us think about the Pumpkin King’s holiday, whether they be scary and violent or more light-hearted like THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS.
And after some thought, I think I’ve finally figured it out. I think I’ve finally found an answer to the question…
Because I genuinely believe now that it’s a Christmas film.
Even writing that out now, it still looks strange to see. After all, this is the film that still, 25 years since it’s release, is most emblematic of Tim Burton’s visual style – a style that has been embraced by goths, outcasts, and lovers of the weird and spooky ever since.
It’s a film which has a skeleton as its main character, which opens on shots of ghosts and pumpkins, and which sees Santa Claus (or “Sandy Claws”, as the residents of Halloween Town call him) kidnapped by a misbehaving gang of trick-or-treaters. To call it a Christmas film therefore sounds strange even to my own ears.
But I’ve decided that it is – because thematically, it shares much more with Christmas films than anything else. Fundamentally, it’s the message a film conveys that determines where it belongs. Christmas films generally have a focus on family and community, and THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS is just the same.
After all his (mis)adventures, at the end of the film Jack comes to realize the folly of his mistakes. By turning his back on his friends and the town that loves him, disaster has followed. It’s only by returning to where he belongs, embracing his community, and accepting the love of the ragdoll Sally that he finds happiness again.
Nobody would ever accuse THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS of being a horror film, but I believe this shows that it’s not even a Halloween film either. It belongs firmly to the realm of Christmas, and that’s why I’ll be watching it as part of my holiday celebrations this year.
Of course, give it another twelve months… and I’ll probably change my mind again.
From all of us here at WriteMovies, a very Merry Christmas. Oh, and I supposed a Happy (belated) Halloween, too!
Everyone in the world thinks and speaks differently. The differences in our characters come about for a number of reasons such as our brain structure and genetics – but they are expressed in the way that we conceive of things and our choice of phrases and the words we use.
The importance of world-building – in all genres, although particularly science-fiction, fantasy, and horror – can’t be understated. The world of your script isn’t something that should be designed separately from the story, but in tandem with it.
In the first two parts of this series on character arcs, we’ve talked about not just how to write them, but how important they are – how, by combining with other elements like structure, they give your script shape and a sense of progression.