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Archive for June, 2010

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The Heath brothers released a book a few years back called MADE to STICK. In it they detail what makes ideas stick dubbed their SUCCESs Model:

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Story

I’ve not read the book or seen either version of the movie, but I have heard of it and am glad Michelle blogged about her experience.

So, here’s my stab at applying the SUCCESs model to why this book is a bestseller. I think a good bit of the hype has to do with just the name of the book: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

The title itself is Simple – we know what it’s about. (Or we think we do. The comments above reveal that at least in the first book the namesake Girl isn’t much involved.)

It’s Unexpected. Boys get flashy, dangerous tattoos. A girl with one? That’s very unexpected.

It’s Concrete. The words and definite and clearly evoke a mental image. Girl, Tattoo, Dragon.

The “Credible” concept is hard to apply to fiction. It overlaps with “Concrete” in my understanding. It’s the vivid details (the mental image evoked by the words) and surely the cover art adds to this. (I wonder if this has hurt electronic sales since there is no cover art…hmm… This is an interesting way to objectively verify the theory though I can’t imagine the effect would be great…)

Emotional. Think about it. A girl. With a tattoo. Of a dragon. Doesn’t that evoke something more than just an unexpected image? Dragon and Tattoo are emotively packed words. They scream their connotations: bad girl, rough life, eastern influence, mystery… It doesn’t get much more emotional in only six words.

Lastly, and most importantly, story. There is technically no story in the six words of the title. They are a phrase and no more. However, being that this is a book title there is the *promise* of a story.

Thus people buy. And they recommend it to their friends before actually reading said book or watching said movie. Because the *title* is sticky.

Perhaps we could all learn a lot from Stieg Larsson and the Heath brothers about properly formulating a title. It may be more important than even the 25-word summary.

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Source: 11 WRITERS LATER: How 20th Exec Alex Young Lost Control Of ‘The A-Team’ by Nikki Finke.

Wow. Just read it. And if you’re a writer, weep.

Here’s the money quote (which is not from this article but quoted in it):

Beginning with the sound era, studios and films producers have longed for a way to eliminate the screenwriter from the filmmaking process. By and large, writers are prickly personalities who absorb too much time, demand too much credit and need to be kept clear of the set, where they might interfere with the director, who is, after all, the real auteur of the film. With The A-Team, a Fox film derived from a 1980s TV series, this dream now is a reality. The film seems nearly writer-free. Absolutely no time gets wasted on story, character development or logic.

Ouch.

Learn and above all remember the lesson of Pixar.

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Why I Write

Delight yourself also in the LORD, And He shall give you the desires of your heart. – Psalm 37:4 (NKJV)

This verse doesn’t necessarily mean you get what you want, that God is purely in the business of wish fulfillment. It can also mean that God puts a new desire inside you. I think the latter is more accurate and it certainly fits my experience.

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Sources: The One-Sentence Summary, WINNERS: The One-Sentence Summary Contest, and One-Sentence Summary Critiques & Tips by Rachelle Gardner

Rachelle Gardner offered the following advice for constructing good storylines on several recent blog posts.

  • A one-sentence summary (also called a storyline) is about 25 words that capture the essence of what your book is about.
  • It should generate interest in reading your book.
  • Include:
    • A character or two
    • Their choice, conflict, or goal
    • What’s at stake (may be implied)
    • Action that will get them to the goal
    • Setting (if important)
  • Keep it simple. One plotline, 1 or 2 characters.
  • Use the strongest nouns, verbs and adjectives. Use specific language.
  • Make the conflict clear but don’t necessarily hint at the solution.
  • Make it visual so the reader can see what’s happening.
  • Above all, make sure you describe a story with conflict and not just characters in a situation.

This aspiring author also recommends Randy Ingermanson’s excellent Writing Fiction for Dummies.

Image: ‘Be seeing you’
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/19487674@N00/58499153

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[Guest-posted on Forensics and Faith by Brandilyn Collin]

Last time I introduced you to Robert Plutchik‘s emotions. Today we’ll talk about blending the eight basic emotions and how to use them in our writing. The color wheel (GIF Image) from last time doesn’t show any blending beyond neighboring emotions. These are listed between the “petals” in the flower diagram. For example, “Optimism” is a blend of both “Anticipation” and”Joy”.

Thankfully, Plutchik didn’t stop there.

The 48 Emotions of Plutchik
Emotion LVL Composition Opposite Intense Form Mild Form
Anger Basic N/A Fear Rage Annoyance
Anticipation Basic N/A Surprise Vigilance Interest
Disgust Basic N/A Trust Loathing Boredom
Fear Basic N/A Anger Terror Apprehension
Joy Basic N/A Sadness Ecstasy Serenity
Sadness Basic N/A Joy Grief Pensiveness
Surprise Basic N/A Anticipation Amazement Distraction
Trust Basic N/A Disgust Admiration Acceptance
Aggressiveness Primary Blend Anger + Anticipation Alarm1
Optimism Primary Blend Anticipation + Joy Disappointment
Contempt Primary Blend Disgust + Anger Submission
Alarm1 Primary Blend Fear + Surprise Aggressiveness
Love Primary Blend Joy + Trust Remorse
Remorse Primary Blend Sadness + Disgust Love
Disappointment Primary Blend Surprise + Sadness Optimism
Submission Primary Blend Trust + Fear Contempt
Pride Secondary Blend Anger + Joy Despair
Hope2 Secondary Blend Anticipation + Trust Unbelief3
Cynicism Secondary Blend Disgust + Anticipation Curiosity
Despair Secondary Blend Fear + Sadness Pride
Guilt Secondary Blend Joy + Fear Envy
Envy Secondary Blend Sadness + Anger Guilt
Unbelief3 Secondary Blend Surprise + Disgust Hope2
Curiosity Secondary Blend Trust + Surprise Cynicism
Dominance Tertiary Blend Anger + Trust Shame
Anxiety Tertiary Blend Anticipation + Fear Outrage
Morbidness Tertiary Blend Disgust + Joy Sentimentality
Shame Tertiary Blend Fear + Disgust Dominance
Outrage Tertiary Blend Surprise + Anger Anxiety
Sentimentality Tertiary Blend Trust + Sadness Morbidness
Delight Tertiary Blend Joy + Surprise Pessimism
Pessimism Tertiary Blend Sadness + Anticipation Delight
Rest4 N/A Emotional Zero N/A

1 – Plutchik gave “Awe” as the emotion for “Fear + Surprise”. I believe “Alarm” is a better choice since “Awe” has lost the connotation of fear over the years.
3 – Plutchik used “Fatalism” for “Anticipation + Trust” but it has such negative connotations I have included “Hope” instead.
3 – Plutchik did not include an emotion for “Surprise + Disgust” by any list I could find. Therefore, I have included “Unbelief” to fill this space.
4 – Plutchik did not include the state described as “Emotional Zero” in his list. However, I believe it is useful and have therefore included “Rest” to represent it.

So how can we tap into this ocean of emotion and make it flow onto our pages?

  1. The first and simplest step is to save a copy of this information for your personal reference. A fabulous poster (PDF) exists courtesy of Markus Drews of the University of Applied Sciences in Potsdam, Germany.
  2. Next, read over the list of emotions again. Look at the diagram. Get them into your head. Study. Focus. Cram. Actually, don’t cram but do all the other things. Take the time to really explore what this theory means to you and your writing.
  3. Feel free to test the limits of Plutchik’s theory as you do this. For example, does the combination of “Fear + Disgust” suggest “Shame” to you as he proposes? How about the other combinations? I had an excellent discussion with someone who expressed doubt about Fear and Anger being mutually-exclusive opposites. I shared this insight: In both emotions, one’s attention is strongly focused – usually on some object or person. However, the action that expresses the emotion happens in opposite directions; Fear is about escaping away from that focal object whereas when Angry one usually cannot be kept away. Clearly ‘approach’ and ‘escape’ cannot co-exist in the same moment of time so in this sense Fear and Anger are mutually-exclusive opposites.
  4. The previous step should naturally lead to thoughts of individual characters as their emotions travel around Plutchik’s wheel. In general, let the wheel be the spark that ignites your creative juices. Use it to identify and emphasize opposites (as in dialogue between two characters with different scene purposes).
  5. Finally, if Plutchik’s research is correct, then many writers are not using the full spectrum (or potential) of emotions in their writing. Make your characters three-dimensional by showing as much depth to their personalities as possible.

Let me introduce you to Sylvia who has just returned home from the grocery store to find her door smashed in and splintered. Her arms are full of groceries. What emotions would she experience?

How about Outrage (Surprise + Anger) over the state of her door, Anticipation that an intruder might still lurk inside, Fear and very likely Terror (Intense Fear) that she will be discovered on the stoop.

In Alarm (Surprise + Fear) she grasps the grocery bags tight around her body like a shield. Her eyes are wide with Grief (Intense Sadness) as she lowers her head in an act of Submission (Trust + Fear) over the state of her home and backs silently away. As she nears the driveway she sees a shadowy figure in the outline of the broken door and reacts with Disgust and Contempt (Anger + Disgust), but she controls her emotions and does not leap forward in Rage (Intense Anger). Finding the handle to the car door provides a small measure of comfort (Serenity) as her emotions finally start to calm down (Rest) knowing that soon she will be safely away. She Trusts her engine to start smoothly – and it does.

No good writer would write a scene this way, so take it for what it is – an example, an exploration of all eight emotions in the same scene. Yet if you count them, they’re all represented! While including all eight probably isn’t a good thing, exploring all eight for each scene is. Use Plutchik to explore each of the eight emotions in your scenes to identify which are the best to use or emphasize.

By the way, we’re all biased. We all have pet words that we tend to overuse and we often prefer certain letters of the alphabet for our characters’ names. The same goes for emotions. We write about certain emotions while ignoring others. So use Plutchik to keep your writing fresh by exploring the areas of human emotion that you often overlook. Keep what improves your writing and discard what doesn’t.

Finally, the thoughtful and observant writer will note the need for specific methods to include this material in their writing. For this, I propose the need for a comprehensive list of Facial Expressions, Body Language, and Mental States mapped to Plutchik’s emotions. However, in my research such a list doesn’t yet exist. So that will have to be the topic of another post. Hopefully, I’ve given you much to think about and a new tool to explore in your writing.

[Edits: Mine]

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[Guest-posted on Forensics and Faith by Brandilyn Collin]

Randy Ingermanson once said that people read books because they want to have an emotional experience. While that’s certainly true of “Twilight”, I think it holds true for all books. Even books about negative characters can be interesting to us because of their emotional content due to what James Scott Bell calls a “‘car wreck’ dynamic”.

Ironically, even though we’ve all experienced many, many emotions throughout our lives, few humans are experts. So, depicting them in our stories can seem an impossible task. However, as with most things, we can learn to be better at emotions.

But where to begin? Emotions are complicated and confusing. Consider these obstacles:

  • Many lists of emotions have been generated, yet no matter how much they overlap, they never quite converge. Some are even in conflict with one another.
  • There is no agreed-upon method to organize emotions. Do emotions resemble a list, a tree structure, or a three-dimensional shape? Can they even be visualized?
  • There is no agreed-upon method to name emotions. What someone calls “Joy” is called “Happiness” by another.
  • As if this weren’t complex enough, there also seem to be levels of intensity to emotions. What is the difference between Affection, Love, and Ecstasy but the level of intensity?
  • Emotions seem to somehow blend together to form new emotions that are distinct from their progenitors.
  • Even Wikipedia, a site that normally excels at harnessing the collective knowledge of the human race, fails to adequately deliver on a comprehensive list and understanding of emotions. The current list includes 80 separate emotions yet many overlap. And some are, well, foreign. Schadenfreude anyone?

So, how can emotions be classified so that we better understand them, and understanding them better use them in our writings? I believe psychologist and researcher Robert Plutchik who spent decades studying emotions has the answer. Plutchik’s research yielded some amazing discoveries about emotions including a comprehensive list of eight primary emotions arranged as opposing pairs. Observe:

  • Joy vs Sadness
  • Trust vs Disgust
  • Fear vs Anger
  • Surprise vs Anticipation

He also visualized this list as a wheel of sorts, referred to by some as Plutchik’s Flower:


Author: Ivan Akira
Source: Wikimedia Commons
License: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Analogous to a color wheel, variations in color intensity correspond to variations in emotional intensity. Thus, the eight primary emotions occupy the middle ring of the flower with more intense forms occurring in the center (note the bolder colors) and milder forms the extremities (note the paler colors). For example, “Rage” is the stronger form of “Anger” while “Annoyance” is the weaker.

Also note that the two-dimensional flower can fold into a spinning top shape as shown in the upper-left corner. The tip of the top and the center of the flower is the point of emotional zero.

Plutchik’s approach satisfies our needs by providing:

  • a semantically-consistent set of distinct emotions
  • an organizational structure
  • a standard set of names

Plutchik’s approach satisfies our expectations by providing:

  • levels of intensity in emotions
  • the blending of primary emotions to form new ones
  • the concept of emotional “opposites” as mutually exclusive pairs
  • a blank, non-emotional state

In summary, Robert Plutchik left us a deep legacy. Next time I’ll write about blending emotions. This is where the really interesting stuff happens and which can be directly applied to the process of writing.

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[Author’s Note: This post is now outdated. Read the expanded and updated version.]

It’s an age-old problem: How to share information in a novel without readers picking up on your clues until the reveal at the end. Here are some strategies I’ve picked up on:

  1. Hide clues in plain sight.
    • Duh. Most people are not that observant and rarely see what is right in front of their face.
    • If you can include information in the form of a list, always bury the most important part in the middle. People remember the last thing in a list best, the first next-best, and the middle last.
  2. Share clues out of order.
    • If you know that John has access to Love Potion #9 (A), Love Potion #9 actually causes explosions (B), and an explosion destroyed headquarters (C),  then it’s reasonable to conclude that John is responsible for blowing up HQ (A -> B -> C). Many crimes in detective novels are constructed by the writer this way whereas the hero often learns A, B, and C in REVERSE order. The crime (C) comes first, then the method (B), and is only connected with the culprit (A) at the end.
    • The drawback of this method is that it excludes any kind of surprise ending! The solution is to mix up the order. Share (C) and (A) with your reader but withhold the crucial (B) that links the two until the end to stretch out suspense or setup a twist ending.
    • For longer chains of clues (A -> B -> C -> D -> E, for example) you can get very, very creative. Just don’t get so complicated that readers can’t follow the chain.
  3. Establish a secondary purpose for something already explained.
    • In the book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, the mind game program that Ender periodically interacts with is used to explain how the buggers communicate with Ender at the end of the book. However in the sequel, it must ALSO be the source for a sentient computer program.
    • We humans like our loose ends packaged up into nice, neat little containers. Card surprises us by killing two birds with one stone. It’s efficient and it’s always unexpected when done right.
  4. Share something innocuous that has important consequences when taken to its logical conclusion.
    • In Agatha Christie‘s murder mystery play The Mousetrap, information is shared with the audience at the beginning. Taken at face value, it tells the viewer nothing but at the end of the novel it is used to explain everything.

Note that you can also combine these techniques for even better results. For example, place a shotgun on the back wall in your opening scene (hidden in plain sight). Readers won’t be looking for a gun (shared out of order) until someone gets shot in chapter 4, but you can bet they’ll remember it’s there in the last chapter if you’ll only remind them where it was the whole time.

Get creative!

Image Source: http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/artsandentertainment/cyrils-magical-mystery-tour/338627

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