Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Compelling Case: Lessons From Law & Order

Law and Order has much to teach writers about dialogue, raising the stakes in a story and plot twists. Recently, four words grabbed my attention the importance of a compelling case.
Compelling scenes draw readers

As the district attorney, the order side of the process, lamented the lack of evidence from the law side, I saw the parallel to writing. It's not necessary to convince readers of a concept or theme, merely to make a compelling case for the plausibility of the world and the people the writer created.

Al though the key word is "compelling," there's a world of difference between convincingly presenting a story and grabbing readers by the collar.

Consider these examples:

"If I've told you once," he said, waving his hands, "I've told you a thousand times you must come with me. I'm telling you, it's life or death we're talking."

"I've asked before," he said, "I know, but I've got to ask again come with me. Don't make me beg."

Notice that the word "you" is used four times in some form in the first example, not once in second. Which is more compelling?

Exercise: For inspiration, visit your local café, and write a scene that's over the top, dramatic. Put it aside for a week, and work on other stories, then return, do a save-as and pare the scene to its essentials. Which is more compelling?

Advanced Exercise: To take the edited scene to the next level, consolidate long phrases, replace ambiguous words with precise ones, and revise every cliché. This can be a first step to solid flash fiction. If you prefer the first example above, consider this:

"I've told you a thousand times you must come. It's life and death we're talking."

Resources: For more on writing compelling scenes, visit and "Components of a Good Opening Scene."

Monday, April 2, 2012

Best of Both Worlds: Journalism Principles for Opening Paragraphs

Strong leads capture reader interest
You may recall, before our poetic interlude, that we were talking about using the journalistic style of crafting a good lead to craft a good opening to a short story or novel.

To get us back in the grove, a good nonfiction lead must include the five Ws and an H: who, what, where, when, why and how. And usually, when it comes to leads, shorter is better. This approach to writing a first paragraph or creating or recreating an entire story works for fiction, too.

Last time, we began with the lead, and used this object lesson:

Select a nonfiction story you've written one you like and have written recently and edit the lead to conform to the journalistic style. If you're looking for ideas for new stories, scan your local newspaper (print sometimes works better), select a story that grabs you and follow the same steps.

To that exercise, let's add this to address the "who" of the story:

Revise the lead paragraph(s) to the each main character by name, and the other primary characters by allusion. Introducing too many characters at once can muddy a piece, but hinting at what's to come whets the reader's appetite.

Tip: The advantage of this approach is that it offers the best of both worlds — the unbounded quality of fiction and the grounded quality of nonfiction.

For more on opening paragraphs, see this from Writer's Digest: "10 Ways to Start Your Story Better." 

Happy writing!