March 19th, 2014

Crossing the Psychological Barrier: There’s More to Writing than Meets the Fist

The winner of Tiffany’s drawing last month is Patrick as determined by Random.org. Congratulations, Tiffany is waiting for you to contact her with your information.

By Tiffany Lawson Inman

 Action is reaction.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know I’ve hammered in a few times the simple fact that action and suspense are made up of action and reaction, cause/ effect, stimulus/response. I know I have talked about it in most of my Crossing the Physical Barrier series and probably all of the Crossing Emotional Barrier series, and it was the main issue in my King of Dramatic Impact article.

So, yes, it is a powerful element of fiction I feel should not be ignored.  And, after reading a few mediocre PUBLISHED books over the last week, I am compelled to snag a chunk out of one of my workshop lectures to further enlighten you today.  This piece looks at cause and effect in an entirely new angle.

I’m not zeroing in on a gun-slinging-sweat-flying type of action scene this time around. I am talking about ANY scene with movement: two characters or more, moving through a setting, showing relationship, and moving the reader through your story.

What is the catalyst in every scene? Need.

There are three basic character needs. And one of them is usually coupled with another.

  • Need break the hold of someone/something to move forward.
  • Need to stop someone/something in order to move forward.
  • Need to win someone/something in order to move forward.

That infamous stereotypical actor (character) wants to know what his motivation is. Not just through the scene in general. If we, as writers, think in such broad terms as motivation for an entire scene, we will lose our readers. What about the goal of the scene you ask? Of course we need a goal. But what is more important than that?The cause-effect relationship between EVERYTHING in a scene. Line to line. This enables the reader to feel connected from the beginning to the end of your scene. Remember how it is in real life; the world moves between dialogue and action.

It can’t just be a fight to be a fight. Or a conversation between characters. It isn’t a series of blah blah blahs to get to the next bit of real information.

Unmotivated, void of emotion? Where is the intrigue in that? Your readers will be bored.

Say you have this great scene you wrote because you needed these two characters to be alone for the first time, but you don’t give your reader any new information about the two characters. Sadly, your manuscript probably won’t make it into an agent/editor/publishers hands. EEEK!

Ok, so back to it. There is a fight: Two brothers may seem like they are just rough-housing from the outside, but what are they really fighting about? A girl? Their parent’s affections? Is there a secret? So when you are writing about these two brothers shoving and throwing chairs, how do you show the inside story within the scene? Because the scene HAS TO BE more than punches, grunts, and one-liners. You as a writer NEED it to be more than that so you can move your characters closer to their conflict or resolution.

You are writing that scene for a reason, or you should be. Because everything in your A’s to B’s has to count towards your story. This could also mean you are showing a character’s vulnerability or strength in chapter 1, so you can break it down in chapter 8.

Ok, so, we’ve established the fight can’t be a fight, to be a fight, and a scene filled with dialogue can’t just be two characters talking about the weather. The dialogue has to take the story somewhere. And there is always a psychological undercurrent.

Let’s see how much Robert Crais shows us in this scene from Hostage. The scene is between a teen girl that is being held hostage and one of her three male captors.  You hostagemight have seen the movie with Bruce Willis playing the lead good guy? No? Well, read the book first. Then rent the movie. Seriously!

In this scene, we get to watch relationships and power change in a drastic way.  Again, I am showing you an amplified example!  We might not have to be so drastic in our use of these tools, but Crais has a good reason for his extremes. He is showing a character lose physical power by being tied up.  This scene is very interesting to read (one of my favorite examples to use) because it is all about what Jennifer does with her limited power, psychologically.  Neat!

Remember to think about while you are reading – how is Crais using these tools:

  • What action is and isn’t there
  • What is or isn’t said
  • Placement of dialogue
  • Body Language
  • Choreography
  • Word choice and rhythms

I’ll let you read without interruption from me the first time and then I will jump in to dissect!

Partial scene from Hostage, by Robert Crais.

**********************

            “Whatever. Sit here and put your hands behind the chair.”

“I don’t see why you can’t just lock me in. It’s not like I can go anywhere.”

“Either I’m going to tie you or Mars will tie you.”

She perched on the chair, tense and wary.

Kevin had two long black extension cords. She cringed when he touched her, but he didn’t treat her roughly or twist her arms.

“I don’t want to make this too tight, but I got to tie you. Mars is going to check.”

His voice held a regret that surprised her. She knew that Kevin was scared, but now she wondered if he felt embarrassed at what they were doing. Maybe he even had a conscience. He finished with her wrists, then moved around in front of her to tie her ankles to the front of the chair. She watched him, thinking that if there was a friend to be found among them it was him.

“Kevin?”

“What?”

She kept her voice soft, scared that Mars would hear.

“You’re caught in this just like me.”

His face darkened.

“I’ve heard the three of you talking. You’re the only one who seems to know that you’re making it worse by being here. Dennis doesn’t get that.”

“Don’t talk about Dennis.”

“Why do you go along with him?”

“Things just happen, is all. Don’t talk about it.”

“My father needs a doctor.”

“He’s just knocked out. I’ve been knocked out.”

“You know it’s worse than that. Think about what you’re doing, Kevin, please. Make Dennis see. If my father dies they’ll charger you with his murder, too. You know that.”

“There’s nothing I can do.”

“You knew better than to rob that minimart, didn’t you? I’ll bet you tried to talk Dennis out of it, but he wouldn’t listen and now you’re all trapped in here and wanted for murder.”

He kept his face down, pulling at the extension cords.

“I bet that’s true. You knew it was wrong, and it was. Know you know this is wrong too. My daddy needs a doctor, but Dennis is just being stubborn. If you keep following Dennis and Mars, the police will kill you all.”

Kevin leaned back on his heels. He seemed tired, as if he had been worrying the problem for so long without a solution that the worrying had worn him out. He shook his head.

“I’m sorry.”

********************

I’m jumping in!

What did we just see? Not a whole lot of action here….

Or is there?

Let’s focus on Jennifer. She is being tied up – she is physically in the victim’s role. But she doesn’t stay there long. Jennifer is looking for a way in. Her need is to win one of the three captors over.

How does Crais show her needs?  Through a few of her thoughts, but mainly her reactionary DIALOGUE. 

Dissection time:

************

Whatever. Sit here and put your hands behind the chair.”

“I don’t see why you can’t just lock me in. It’s not like I can go anywhere.”

“Either I’m going to tie you or Mars will tie you.”

She perched on the chair, tense and wary.

Kevin had two long black extension cords. She cringed when he touched her, but he didn’t treat her roughly or twist her arms.

SHOWING WHAT HE ISN’T DOING to show us his character.

“I don’t want to make this too tight, but I got to tie you. Mars is going to check.”

Here is her way in.

His voice held a regret that surprised her.

NEW INFORMATION about character. Shows a lot.

She knew that Kevin was scared, but now she wondered if he felt embarrassed at what they were doing. Maybe he even had a conscience. He finished with her wrists, then moved around in front of her to tie her ankles to the front of the chair. She watched him, thinking that if there was a friend to be found among them it was him.

“Kevin?”

“What?”

Crais writes that she is keeping her voice soft, because she is afraid of Mars, her next line leads the reader to believe that she is also lowering her voice so she doesn’t scare off Kevin.

She kept her voice soft, scared that Mars would hear.

VOCAL CUE. She wants to make him feel like a victim too.

“You’re caught in this just like me.”

His face darkened.

Crais shows us what is not happening. He’s not stopping her. He lets her keep talking.

Notice after this, he sticks to dialogue for a while.  Why?

Because that is where the MOVEMENT is happening. Not in their physical actions, but in their dialogue.  We know she is still being tied up. That’s all we need to know. Jennifer tries something here, she tells him that he is smarter than the rest of his crew.  And then she puts Dennis down.

“I’ve heard the three of you talking. You’re the only one who seems to know that you’re making it worse by being here. Dennis doesn’t get that.”

He tells her not to talk about him. She has touched a sensitive area, yes?

“Don’t talk about Dennis.”

Does she comply? Nope. One more question about him. The reader is watching her test boundaries.

“Why do you go along with him?”

Next we learn something from Kevin.  This type of criminal fiasco has happened before. NEW INFORMATION. Now time to show what the other character in the scene will do with this new information.

“Things just happen, is all.”

And he tells her again, not to talk about the situation involving Dennis.

“Don’t talk about it.”

This time she complies.  What next? She can’t quit. Her father is comatose and they aren’t doing anything about it.  She goes for logic.  Once again, Crais is SHOWING CHARACTERIZATION here!  She isn’t saying, “Please let me go.”  Please let me get my personal need fulfilled.  So she switches tactics.

“My father needs a doctor.”

Kevin doesn’t yield. She pushes harder and brings up Dennis again. She knows that is a power button for Kevin.  A brother relationship. Something very fragile. WORD CHOICE — She uses his name again.  Makes him think that Dennis will listen to him. And then she mentions murder.

“You know it’s worse than that. Think about what you’re doing, Kevin, please. Make Dennis see. If my father dies they’ll charger you with his murder, too. You know that.”

Kevin holds his ground. Repeats his position.

“There’s nothing I can do.”

She tries again. Alludes to Kevin being smart, and above the crime. Giving him credit for trying to stand up to Dennis. And she mentions murder again.

“You knew better than to rob that minimart, didn’t you? I’ll bet you tried to talk Dennis out of it, but he wouldn’t listen and now you’re all trapped in here and wanted for murder.”

And now we have a physical reaction! Well, kind of.

Crais is SHOWING THE READER WHAT A CHARACTER ISN’T DOING.  Kevin isn’t not talking anymore.  He doesn’t have any more lines of defense.

He kept his face down, pulling at the extension cords.

This is her “in” she keeps going for the touch down!

This time she CHANGES HER LANGUAGE: she says Daddy instead of father. To make her seem more vulnerable?

“I bet that’s true. You knew it was wrong, and it was. Know you know this is wrong too. My daddy needs a doctor, but Dennis is just being stubborn.”

Still no response from Kevin. Time for a reaction. Jennifer RAISES THE STAKES to the highest level. She took her captors situation and tossed it in the fire. Now they aren’t just being charged with murder, but they will all be killed.

“If you keep following Dennis and Mars, the police will kill you all.”

And what is reaction to that?  He stops tying her up. With his BODY LANGUAGE he SHOWS EMOTION. Not a thing the captor usually shows the hostage.

Kevin leaned back on his heels. He seemed tired, as if he had been worrying the problem for so long without a solution that the worrying had worn him out. He shook his head.

And then the grand finale. Jennifer has won this fight, and there weren’t even any fists thrown in this scene. He apologizes to her.

“I’m sorry.”

Is anyone cheering for her right now?  The reader sure is!  But Crais can’t let her win.  She’s the victim, remember?  And so goes the dance of the power yo-yo.  This is how he gets you to turn the page.  Who will have the power next? Not Jennifer. Not Kevin.

A shadow moved behind Kevin, catching Jennifer’s eye. Mars stood in the door, staring at them, his face blank. She didn’t know how long he had been there, or what he had heard.

Mars didn’t look at Kevin; he was staring at her.

Mars doesn’t come in and yell at them for talking behind his back. Instead, he joins in the conversation. A very risky thing for any person. But Mars has power. He knows he has power, and this is his way of ripping away any security these two had built up in the last minute.

The first two characters are now naked. So to speak. 🙂

“Never be sorry.”

Burst of instinctual movement, like a servant taking the masters chair at the dinner table. And getting caught.

Kevin stood so quickly that he almost fell.

“I tied her ankles too tight. I had to tie them again.”

Mars is still has the power. WHAT ISN’T SAID – Crais doesn’t even have him respond to the dialogue of his peer, and by doing this he amplifies the dynamics of their relationship.

Mars went to the windows. He hammered heavy nails into the sills so that the windows wouldn’t open, then came back to stand in front of her.

Now that Mars has shown us his power over Kevin. He SHOWS POWER over Jennifer. First by standing over her. And then he changes his position.  Why?  Crais wants the reader to see that he has control over her from dangerous angles too. Stakes being raised!

Crais could have had him crouch down and check her bindings from beside the chair. But that choreography wouldn’t raise the stakes. Between her legs. This position leaves her feeling very vulnerable and the reader is feeling vulnerable with her.

He stood very close, towering over her in a way that made him seem to reach the ceiling. He squatted between her legs, then tugged at the bindings on her ankles. The cord cut into her skin.

You guys are understanding the patterns here, right? Get into the head of Robert Crais.  What is he showing the reader with each movement, non-movement. What does he allow his characters to say to each other?

********************

The scene goes on, Mars tells Kevin to go downstairs, leaving Jennifer alone with Mars. With as much power as Mars holds in Jennifer’s bedroom, alone with a bound teenage girl, etc… instead of the expected kiss, grope, or slap. Crais has Mars show a strange sort of pride in this characters dark past. The reader gets to peek inside the crazy man’s head for just a moment. And, therefore nailing it in that this dude isn’t a normal criminal. A normal criminal would have taken advantage of the girl. A normal criminal would have put her in her place in a larger physical manor rather than the creepy subtle clavicle squeeze. “Mars squeezed her shoulder once, firmly, as if he were testing the bone beneath her flesh, and then he drew away.”

But, readers already know what normal criminals are going to do.

And Robert Crais knows it.

Is every scene in your novel going to be this jam-packed with psychological cause/effect movement? Probably not. But remember every line in your novel counts. Don’t gloss over a scene because it reached a goal in a general kind of way. Your story will be weak as a result. When the stakes should be on the rise, these are the tools you can use.

Remember your character’s needs. And remember your needs as a writer. We need our readers to be instinctively turning pages. If you make an effort to connect your reader, moment to moment, they won’t be able to let go of your book until the last page.

Thanks again for visiting WITS today. Always a pleasure to be here. And if you didn’t catch me the last time around, last month I got to do TWO exclusive interviews with NYT best sellers Lisa Unger and Sophie Jordan. I cracked into their brains on how they write fight scenes and emotion.  I dissect a couple of their scenes and show you how and why they are able to write such stellar action. 

*** In today’s comments section I will be line editing last month’s mini-writing challenge entries!

Unfortunately I am not hosting my regular mini-writing-challenge today. I know, I am sorry!  I won’t be teaching for the next few months so there won’t be any classes for me to give away as a prize for the challenge.  But never fear, I will be back on WITS next month and over at Savvy Authors Learning Center to shake down more writing craft knowledge and I hope to then have my teaching schedule in line for the future. 

About Tiffany

Tiffany Lawson Inman

Tiffany Lawson Inman

Tiffany Lawson Inman claimed a higher education at Columbia College Chicago. There, she learned to use body and mind together for action scenes, character emotion, and dramatic story development. Tiffany’s background in theatre provides her with a unique approach to the craft of writing, and her clients and students greatly benefit. She teaches Action and Fighting, Choreography, Active Setting, Emotional Impact, Scene Writing, and Dialogue for Lawson Writer’s Academy online, presents hands-on-action workshops, and will be offering webinars this year.

As a freelance editor, she provides deep story analysis, content editing, line by line, and dramatic fiction editing services. Stay tuned to Twitter @NakedEditor for Tiffany’s upcoming guest blogs around the internet, classes, contests, and lecture packets.

Check out her previous blogs on WITS.

Crossing Physical Barriers in Fiction, Part 1
Crossing Physical Barriers in Fiction – Part 2
Emotional Barrier in Fiction: After You Cross It, What’s Next? (Part Two)Emotional Barriers in Fiction: Intro to Emotional Channels (Part Three)
Crossing Physical Barriers: NYT Bestseller Interviews

 

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