Elements of Fiction – Part 4: Introspection

Welcome back for the final installment of my series of “Elements of Fiction.” For today’s write-up, I’m going to discuss an angle that I don’t think gets enough love or perspective from most writing mentors. Today, I’ll be talking about introspection, and what’s really going on inside a character’s head.

What is Introspection?

Introspection is when we look at our own thoughts and feelings. It’s something that we can do in real life easy enough. But how easy is it for us to get a glimpse into a character’s inner thoughts? How do we show a character’s emotions, instead of just having them say they’re sad or angry or whatever?

When it comes to writing literature, introspection is easy. In between your character’s action and dialogue, you’ll have whole paragraphs devoted to their internal reactions. Here’s a good example from that literary classic, The Great Gatsby:

“Meyer Wolfshiem? No, he’s a gambler.” Gatsby hesitated, then added coolly: “He’s the man who fixed the World’s Series back in 1919.”

“Fixed the World’s Series?” I repeated.

The idea staggered me. I remembered of course that the World’s Series had been fixed in 1919 but if I had thought of it at all I would have thought of it as a thing that merely happened, the end of some inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people—with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.

Physically, what does Nick Carraway do in this scene? He’s talking to his new friend Gatsby, after just meeting Gatsby’s friend and mentor Wolfshiem. This is Nick’s first foray into Jay Gatsby’s world. After living a mostly sheltered life as an upstanding citizen, now Nick is rubbing shoulders with gamblers and gangsters, and seeing how someone like Gatsby makes his outrageous fortune overnight. It’s all what’s happening inside his head. It’s his introspection at work. He’s reexamining his beliefs about the event in 1919. From there, he’ll seek to change what he knows about his cousin Daisy, her past relationship with Gatsby, and what he can do to help that along.

A change in one’s beliefs is a big deal for any story. It’s what pushes the character into a new line of action, and as we discussed in the second part of this series, what a character does is always in line with their ultimate goal. Even when that goal is just “Get the hell out of Dodge because something is trying to kill me!”

Now, showing introspection in something outside of literature is a little trickier. It’s easy for literature writers, but what about screenwriters or playwrights?

Copyright © 2002 by Universal Pictures

Consider a scene like the end of The Bourne Identity. The big climax features Jason Bourne gunning his way out of a Paris apartment building—and doing the coolest shot ever while falling down a flight of stairs. But right before that, we see Jason confront his former boss Conklin. In that confrontation, when Conklin’s demanding answers, Jason finally gets his memory back of what happened on the night he was supposed to kill Wombosi for the CIA.

Visually, this means we cut in between present-day shots of Matt Damon looking upset and flashback shots of him holding a gun to Wombosi’s head… only to pull away when he sees the kids in the room. Conklin doesn’t see any of this, but the audience knows exactly what Jason’s going through. He’s remembering the moral dilemma he faced, and in the past, he made a decision. Now, that decision is haunting him, and we see it in Matt Damon’s pained expression and the movie’s frenzied editing between the apartment and the yacht. It also sets up the line where Jason looks his former boss in the eye and says, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

Introspection is everything that a character doesn’t say or do onscreen or on the page of your story. It is, however, everything your character thinks and feels, and when we can appreciate that, we’re more likely to want to follow them and see how their story ends.

Thanks for reading. If you would like to see more content like this, you can read my posts on the elements of Setting, Action, and Dialogue.


Elements of Fiction – Part 3: Dialogue

It’s Tuesday, and that means it’s time for another installment of “Elements of Fiction.” Today, I’ll be looking at dialogue, and how it can do more than fill up time or deliver exposition.

What is Dialogue?

Dialogue is how we advance the story through conversations between people. Now, this can take plenty of forms. It can be a person wandering around a dark house with a flashlight, asking aloud, “Who’s there?” It can be the argument between a husband and a wife. It can be the chilling monologue from a villain who’s cornered the hero in the third act of an action thriller.

Now, there’s an old rule in fiction known as “Show, Don’t Tell.” In laymen’s terms, if you want to convince me that your character is heroic, cowardly, arrogant, or inexperienced, then you need to set things up so that the character can make it obvious by themselves. It’s better than having someone stand off to the side and go, “Well, of course, Jake, but then, you always were a coward, weren’t ya?” Especially if we never see Jake react in fear at all.

Here is where good dialogue can be useful. Consider the conversation between Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars: A New Hope. They’ve just seen the message Princess Leia sent asking them to deliver her droids to Alderaan. After this, Obi-Wan asks Luke to join him on his quest. Luke, however, says he can’t get involved.

Copyright © 1977 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

Obi-Wan: You must learn the ways of the Force, if you’re to come with me to Alderaan.

Luke: Alderaan? I’m not going to Alderaan. I’ve got to go home. It’s late. I’m in for it as it is.

Obi-Wan: I need your help, Luke. She needs your help. I’m getting too old for this sort of thing.

Luke: I can’t get involved! I’ve got work to do! It’s not that I like the Empire! I hate it! But there’s nothing I can do about it right now. It’s such a long way from here.

Obi-Wan: That’s your uncle talking.

Obviously, there’s more to the scene than just these few lines, but let’s examine them. What did we learn from this exchange? Obi-Wan’s making the case that Luke should join his cause and help Leia and the Rebellion. Luke, meanwhile, feels he can’t because of his obligation to the family farm on Tatooine. In context, we know that Luke would love to leave home behind and become a heroic star pilot. But he’s internalized what his uncle has drilled into him. Until Luke can overcome his uncle’s ways and leave the farm, he’ll never become the hero that Obi-Wan sees in him.

This is where we get into the real meat of dialogue can do. It can reveal a character’s nature and their goals. Obi-Wan’s goal is to convince Luke to help Leia and the Rebellion. Luke’s goal is to stay on his uncle’s good side. In their dialogue, we see that Obi-Wan is patient and courageous, willing to leave his quiet life in the wilderness to join the galactic war against the Empire. We also see that Luke is wrestling with his feelings. He’d like to be a hero, too, but he’s afraid. He doesn’t think he’s big enough to face the evil Empire, let alone leave his family behind. But never once does Luke say “I’m afraid to leave.” He just shows it through the way he responds to a Jedi Knight’s call to action.

Finally, it’s also good to remember that each scene is a balance of both dialogue and action. Dialogue can spur action, and vice versa. A cry of “Help!” can spur the hero into action. A sudden betrayal by a friend can have the same character asking, “Why are you doing this?” Both the dialogue and the action reveal things about our characters, about what they want and how they’ll go about getting it.

You don’t have to have the writing chops of an Aaron Sorkin or a Nora Ephron to make good dialogue. To get started, what you need in a given scene is the knowledge of what your character wants, and what they’ll say or do to get it. And in this case, too, it’s worth remembering that sometimes a character can’t say exactly what’s on their mind. Sometimes, you have to consider what a character wants to say, and what they’ll say instead, even if it means keeping quiet.

Stay tuned next week for Part Four: Introspection.

Elements of Fiction – Part 2: Action

Hey there, and welcome back for another installment of “Elements of Fiction.” Today, I’ll be looking at action, what it means within a story, and how it can do more than advance the plot.

What is Action?

Action is one of two things in fiction:

a) What happens in a scene

b) What a character does

You might think that these definitions are saying the same thing, but that’s not always the case. A lot of things can happen within a scene that’s beyond a character’s control.

Copyright © 2007 by Miramax Films

For example, in the ending for No Country for Old Men (spoilers!), after the hitman Anton Chigurh takes care of Llewelyn Moss’s widow, he’s driving away, almost scot-free. Almost, because out of nowhere, another car hits him, and he ends up with a broken arm. Two local kids come across Chigurh, who’s trying to mend his arm. He tries to pay one of them for his shirt, and the other kid gives it to him anyway. Chigurh makes a sling and gives them the money to keep quiet about ever seeing him. The kids bicker over the money as Chigurh limps off into the distance.

Now, what happens in this scene? On the one hand, no one could predict that car coming up and hitting Chigurh’s vehicle. We, the audience, are just as blindsided as he is. On the other hand, look at how the killer reacts to the whole sequence. He didn’t get a clean victory. He’s killed everyone in his path, but he’s still caught up in the forces of chance like the rest of them. And Chigurh, being a sociopath, doesn’t get that a local kid might give him his shirt out of kindness. He insists on giving him money because that’s in line with his personal code, and then he doggedly escapes the scene of the crime on foot.

In this scene, we see something that happens to a character, and we see a character’s response to it. This is what action in a story looks like.

Action is also how we might define what happens in a story. There’s a great episode of “Stand In,” a program on MTVU, that features South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone talking about how they came up with their formula for making new episodes. They never create the action beat for beat with “And then they… and then this happens, etc.” Instead, they use the idea of “Therefore… but…” As in “Eric Cartman has something good happen, therefore he tells his friends, but then his friends tell Cartman that he got swindled by an older kid.” It’s the basic idea of setting up a character goal, then subverting that goal, and then watching how the character reacts to the new challenge, whether they fail or succeed.

Finally, yes, action can be what a character does in the literal sense, like getting a big fight with the villain or chasing after their love interest. Those kinds of action are standard, like when the Final Girl squares off with the Monster at the end of a horror film. But it’s how the action unfolds that tells us something about the character. Sometimes, a character might be expected to do one thing, but then decides to do something else.

It’s how, for example, George R.R. Martin created a compelling storyline in his Song of Ice and Fire novels. He took every medieval fantasy trope and turned it on its head. The noble lord fails to expose the palace intrigues, and while we expect the child king to spare his life at the end, we learn how vicious King Joffrey truly is, and so Ned Stark loses his head. Ned could’ve stayed honest and fought to the bitter end, but instead, he chose to trust the Lannisters for his daughter’s sake. This trust gets him killed, and even the Lannisters are upset with Joffrey’s decision. He could have done the conventional thing and shown clemency, but instead, Joffrey chose to flex his newfound royal muscle and have a known traitor brutally executed.

When you think about action, think about what a character wants and what might get in their way. Then think about how they’ll have to get around that. And from there, you’ve opened the door to a whole path that will move the story forward, while revealing what your characters want most of all and what they’ll do to get it.

Stay tuned next week for Part Three: Dialogue.

Elements of Fiction – Part 1: Setting

Next month, I’m participating in this year’s National Novel Writing Month event, or NaNoWriMo 2017. I’m beyond excited to be involved and to see how far I can get to producing a full-length novel in so short a time. And in that spirit, I thought I might put out a series of posts on what I’ve learned about the basics of good writing.

This is the start of a 4-part series that I’m calling “Elements of Fiction.” Each week, I’ll be discussing and examining a new concept related to storytelling. Today, I’ll be looking at the idea of setting and how a good setting choice can aid your plot and character arcs.

What is Setting?

In any given story, the setting is the time and place where that story occurs. If you crack open a Sherlock Holmes mystery, then you’re reading about the detective in Baker Street in Victorian Era London. When you watch any Star Wars film, the very first thing you’ll see, even before the opening titles, is the famous line “A long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away…

Now, setting is a useful concept because it gives your audience a sense of where everything is taking place. Even when he had only a bare stage to work with, William Shakespeare still had to try and create the idea of his setting in every play. He had to convince his audience that they weren’t watching two actors emote on a stage, but that they were watching two lovers confess their feelings in fair Verona, or that King Henry was giving a rallying speech to his soldiers on the battlefield of Agincourt.

Setting provides the context of what we want to see happen within a story. It also shapes what we might call the mood of a given scene.

Copyright © 1972 by Paramount Pictures

Consider the wedding party scene from The Godfather. The story here cuts between two different locations: the backyard where the party takes place, and the private office where Don Corleone meets every guest who’s come to ask for a crime boss’s favor. Outside, the party is bright, loud, and chaotic, with tons of smiling people. Inside, the Don sits behind his desk and patiently hears every request, with an air of dread and anticipation filling the room. The wedding provides an excellent contrast and a view into Vito Corleone’s life. He’s a man who cares deeply about his family, throwing his daughter the most lavish wedding ever. And indoors, we get a glimpse into how Vito pays for all of this and what kind of power he holds in this world.

When we go outside, the mood shifts to hope and innocence. When we go inside, the mood shifts to cynicism and corruption. It’s no mistake, by the way, that The Godfather ends in that same office, where Vito’s son Michael has taken over the family business. He’s hailed as the new Don Corleone and fully abandoned his innocence from the beginning of the story.

Finally, setting is key when you want to consider what can or can’t happen in a scene. If I set my story on a cruise ship out at sea, there are going to be limits. I obviously can’t have a car chase on the deck. I also have to establish why we’re following these characters on this ship and how being on the ship is going to affect their choices.

Copyright © 1972 by 20th Century Fox

That’s what makes a thriller like The Poseidon Adventure so compelling. It takes the idea of a ship capsizing and sinking as its premise, and then builds the tension around a group of survivors trying to escape. It literally turns the world they know upside-down, and it forces them to adapt or perish.

When you can consider your setting, make sure you give it the best treatment you can. Consider all the elements, like the weather conditions, how many people are there, where our characters can and can’t go, and why they have to be there in the first place. It’s amazing what a simple choice like setting can do to define the rest of the story as we know it.

Stay tuned next week for Part Two: Action.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Episode 1: Awake: Talk Back, Move Forward

Copyright © 2017 by Deck Nine and Square Enix

Writing prequels to a story is tricky. On the one hand, you have to take details from various backstory clues and try to weave them together without contradicting the existing story we already know. On the other hand, you still have to tell a story with its own beginning, middle, and end. If you don’t do this right, you get the Star Wars prequels. If you do it well, you get a compelling tale like Better Call Saul or Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

I’d also put Life is Strange: Before the Storm in this latter category. It’s a compelling look into the past of Arcadia Bay through characters we all know and love.

In Episode 1: “Awake,” we meet Chloe Price at age 16, as she sneaks out at night to attend a Firewalk concert outside the town limits. A sudden encounter with some local toughs and Rachel Amber changes her life forever. Rather than face the ugly truth of her mother Joyce dating David Madsen, or her decline in school attendance at Blackwell Academy, Chloe latches onto the elusive Rachel. Of course, mysteries love to stack onto each other, and this first episode ties together the girls’ fate with their relationships to their respective fathers. For Chloe, it’s about confronting her father’s untimely demise, and for Rachel, it’s dealing with a parent who wasn’t what he seemed to be.

When I first played Life is Strange back in 2014, I didn’t love Chloe Price as a character. But in the episodes that followed, she grew on me. In Before the Storm, I’ve actually come to enjoy playing Chloe as a protagonist over Max. The key difference, I think, is that Max could be easily shaped by how you rewound time and what choices you did or didn’t make. Here, Chloe always has an agenda. She always has a way to get things done, but it’s more of a question if she’ll be quiet and then subvert the System later, or if she’ll get in someone’s face with sarcasm and a few keen insights. It makes Chloe stand out more, even while she’s burning bridges with the principal and making good impressions with the local D&D nerds (and by the way, did you know you can play a short Dungeons & Dragons game in Episode 1?).

On a meta level, I also respect the fact that Chloe Price isn’t being voiced by Ashly Burch, owing to the SAG-AFTRA strike. I love that Miss Burch is still involved as a writing consultant who can bring Chloe back to life, and I think Rhianna DeVries does a fine job as her vocal successor.

Meanwhile, we get a closer look at who Rachel Amber is and what makes her tick. I must say, if you’ve ever played or heard of the fan-made game Love is Strange, then I think you won’t be surprised at how similar their interpretation of Rachel is to the real deal. Or, at least, that’s how I see it. Rachel likes being an enigma, but I get the sense that she’s playing it up to cover for something deep and painful—not unlike how Chloe plays up the deliquent factor to mask her abandonment issues (which we get to see in dream sequences and one heartbreaking junkyard scene).

Besides the character depth we get to explore for both Chloe and Rachel, I love the new mechanics in this series. While Max’s time rewind powers were fun to play with, I also found them very stressful and sometimes they clashed with the plot. Instead, what we get with Chloe is Backtalk and Graffiti. With Backtack Challenges, you can basically shut down an argument with someone else through skillful wit and sarcasm. And, of course, like with any choice in Life is Strange,there will be consequences.” Except, here, the consequences feel like they mean something now. There’s no way to undo it when Chloe loses an argument. She just has to move on.

And I love, love being able to write graffiti wherever I can. Seriously, I know it can be difficult to develop, but I’d love to see more games that let me change around the environment like this. Even if it has nothing to do with the actual story content, it’s just a fun little exercise.

I don’t think Before the Storm is a perfect game (the constant AMD driver crashes on my end certainly didn’t help me with the gameplay experience), but I find it’s an improvement over some of the criticisms leveled at the original Life is Strange. Chloe’s character arc is compelling, her interactions with Rachel and other students are meaningful, and there’s room for all kinds of plot development and new game mechanics in the next two episodes. It’s amazing how a little jaunt into the past can sometimes open up a bright new future.

The first episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, “Awake,” is currently available for purchase and download through Steam, the Xbox Store, and the official website.

Bibliography: Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Episode 1: Awake. Developed by Deck Nine. Published by Square Enix. Directed by Webb Pickersgill and Chris Floyd. Produced by David Lawrence Hein and Zoe Brown. Designed by William Beacham. Programmed by Danielle Cheah. Art by Andrew Weatherl. Written by Zak Garriss and Ashly Burch (consultant). Unity (engine). Microsoft Windows; Xbox One; PlayStation 4. Original release date: August 31, 2017.