Tag Archives: emotional arc

20 Feb

2 Dialogue Tips from Studying SitComs: Just Spit it Out

I learned that Sit-Coms just spit it out. On one episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, Raymond’s brother Robert comes over to take the kids to the zoo. Raymond realizes that the kids might even like Uncle Robert more than him. Robert actually spits it out: You’re not a good father.

Of course, in a sit-com, all you’ve got is the dialogue. Like movies, you can’t get in the characters’ heads, you only have dialogue and actions to make a point. Robert clearly expresses his opinion of Raymond’s parenting skills–in the dialogue.

Raymond, of course, retaliates and tells Robert that he needs to get a life.
Fast forward to the end: Raymond has had a successful (sorta) day at the zoo with the kids and comes home to find Robert in the hot tub with two hot chicks.

Robert: Looks like you are a good father.
Raymond: Looks like you got a life. I’d get in that hot tub with you, but I didn’t come prepared.
Robert: That’s OK, you can use my swim trunks, they are over there. (Beat. That means wait for the audience to get the joke and laugh and appreciate it.) Just kidding.

I learned that the emotional content in a sit-com is laid bare. Characters actually say what the theme of the story is. Here, it’s a two-fold question: Is Raymond a good father? Does Robert have a life outside his duties as uncle? The important moments along the character’s emotional arc are so obvious. And isn’t that nice for the writer? We don’t have to imply, infer, implicate. Just spit it out.

As a novelist, I know that I have more tools than a scriptwriter, so I can put some of the characters’ tensions, fears, and pains into interior dialogue, narrative sections and can use sensory details to fully flesh out a scene and create the right mood. But I’ve added a new tool: Just spit it out.

Timing is crucial. Above, I had the aside about the BEAT, the pause for the audience to get the joke. Sit-coms work because the actors and actresses have superb timing. One book on acting in sit-coms emphasizes the importance of the actor/actress following EXACTLY the script, especially in terms of punctuation. Where should the character hesitate, pause, speed up, scream, whisper–in short, the scriptwriter is allowed to direct the pacing and delivery of the dialogue.

I’ve taken a new look at my punctuation this week, with an eye to pacing the delivery of dialogue. Am I using silences, pauses, hesitations, stuttering, speeding up, etc. to create an extra layer of meaning, to make jokes work, or to characterize?

23 Feb

3 Types of Character Arcs: Choose the Best for Your Novel

How Does Your Character Change?

You know your character must change somehow over the course of your novel. But how? And more than that, how do you sync the changes with the external plot? The middle of a novel can suffer from the dreaded “sagging middle” and it’s mainly because you don’t have a firm handle on the character’s inner arc and how it meshes with external events.

I’ve found three approaches to the inner arc, each trying to laying out how the character changes. While these overlap a lot, there are differences in how the emotional changes are approached.

Hero’s Journey: Quest for Inner Change

WritersJourneyIn the Hero’s Journey, laid out so well in Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey, a character receives a Call to Adventure that takes him/her out of the normal and ordinary world into a world where they must quest for something. One of the key moments in this paradigm is the Inmost Cave where the character faces his deepest fears.

Melanie as an Example

So, we’ve got Melanie who wants more than anything else to get her mother’s approval, but can’t because her mom’s a chef and Melanie can’t cook worth a flip.

In the Hero’s Journey, Melanie might get a Call to Adventure: a challenge to create the world’s largest hot fudge sundae. Her darkest moment will come when she realizes Mom think’s she’s real goof-up and she’s not up to the task. Of course, she wants to give up, but somehow manages to rally (perhaps, recruiting friends to help, learning to make a sundae, etc.) and create something that makes Mom proud.

Iron Sharpens Iron – Friendships

As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17
In this paradigm, two characters cross paths in Act 1 and usually hate each other, but Act 2 throws them into a situation where they must act together. Here, the characters’ strengths and weaknesses work to create change. It’s an up and down battle of learning to trust each other and ultimately find some sort of love, whether it’s platonic, romantic or maternal. Key moments are the midpoint when they totally lose faith in one another and a re-commitment to each other as they move from Act 2 to Act 3. Act 1 and 3 focus on the external story, while Act 2 follows how the friendship affects the characters.
For more on this paradigm, read, Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot by Peter Dunne.

Back to Melanie:

Melanie agrees to participate in the Biggest Sundae Ever contest, but as the contest starts she’s assigned a dunce to work with, Phillip RunnyNose. They clash immediately and have different ideas on how to create the required masterpiece: Melanie wants total creative control, while Phillip wants to just take pictures of the masterpiece. During their practice run–about the middle of act 2–Phillip leaves the ice cream out to soften up, but it melts, ruining the practice sundae. Of course, they fight and demand new partners, but that’s denied. Finally, they find that Melanie is great at building the base of the sundae, but Phillip is better at decorating it (characters have changed, because they accept different roles: Melanie does the basic work, Phillip the artistic/creative work– but they are better together than alone.) They go into Act 3 still unsure of each other’s roles, but committed to trying to create that Great Sundae in the sky and eventually Melanie earns her mother’s approval.

Flawed Way of Coping

Plot versus Character by Jeff GerkeJeff Gerke, in Plot versus Character, describes a different way of dealing with the inner narrative arc. For him, the main character has developed a coping mechanism for dealing with a situation and it’s flawed, inadequate. The change that comes through the course of the novel exposes that coping mechanism as flawed and insists that the MC find a new way of dealing with things. It’s a journey from dysfunctional to functional (or at least some improvement in the way of functioning.)

Melanie as Dysfunctional

Melanie agrees to participate in the Greatest Sundae Contest in order to impress her mother, who runs a bakery that is slowing going out of business because of lack of customers. Mel practices once and gets 100 scoops one on top of each other, then stops to take pictures of the project, but it falls apart just as she snaps her pictures. Mom is furious at the mess in her bakery, but Mel’s pictures are interesting and catch the attention of the newspaper, who publish them, resulting in more business.
When Mel tries again, her masterpiece again falls apart when she starts to take pictures; Mom is even more furious; this time the pics get picked up by a state magazine, resulting in even more business.
Mel persists. A key moment comes though, when she realizes she likes the photography process and decides to do more of it, moving into Act 3. She creates the masterpiece, but this time takes pictures of the entire process from start to–inevitably–collapse. (of course, you’ll add lots of conflict: icing on the camera’s lens; dead battery; etc.) By now, though, Mom is excited by the pictures and realizes she’s got a goldmine in advertising revenue. I’m proud of your photography, she tells Mel. Will you photograph me while I decorate a cake and we’ll use it in advertising.
In short, Mel tried to impress Mom with her skill in creating a sundae, when what really impressed Mom was her photography. She’s replaces an inadequate way of coping (impress Mom with her cooking) with an adequate one (impress Mom with her photography).

Comparing the Paradigms for Character Change

Each paradigm comes with different requirements and different key moments that your plot must provide.

Required Characters

  • Main Character Alone: In the Hero’s Journey, it’s a lonely quest where the main character changes him/herself. Yes, there are supporting characters, but they are secondary to the internal arc.
  • Friends: The Friendship arc requires two people who appear to be polar opposites, but eventually change each other.
  • Either: In the Dysfunctional arc, you can feature another character, or it can be against a situation or event.

Key moments:

  • Fears. Hero’s Journey requires an Inmost Cave, the moment when the character faces his/her worst fears and comes out changed.
  • Difficult Relationship. The Friends arc requires a blow-up in a relationship, with some compelling reason to later recommit to that relationship.
  • Coping. The Dysfunctional arc has that moment when the dysfunctional coping crosses paths with the functional coping and one takes precedence over the other.

What I like best about these paradigms is that they give me a way to navigate the difficult Act 2.

What other types of character arcs are there? Probably several. Do you have a favorite way of thinking about the character arc? Do you naturally think in terms of one or another? I’m still trying to think about this whole topic and would love a discussion.

16 Jul

8 Ways to Enrich Your Character

Character Revision: 8 Ways to Jumpstart a Make Over

You have a first draft, but you realize that your character needs work. How do you retrofit a character when you revise?

I don’t think of a personality transplant. Instead, I try to add to and enrich a character. Here are 8 suggestions on how to revise your novel’s character. Read More

05 Feb

Develop Sympathy with Character Traits 9

Use Character Traits to Make Your Character Sympathetic

Yesterday, we looked at 9 character traits that can be used to develop sympathy for your character. Today, we’ll look at using those traits in your story. It’s not enough just to tell yourself, or write on a checklist, that your character has these traits and is, therefore, instantly sympathetic. You must USE these traits. How? Read More

23 Sep

interior thoughts

Interior Thoughts Reveal Character

I spent time yesterday adding more interior thoughts to a character. My critiquers felt they needed to know the character better at this point in the story. I’ve done the requisite “Show, Don’t Tell,” but readers still felt they needed more to really know the character. What does she FEEL here? What is she thinking?

Some things I learned:

  • Show, Don’t Tell. Be sure you’ve done this first and done it well.
  • Action, Reaction. The right places to put interior thoughts are Read More
03 Apr


While my WIP novel is out with readers, I thought I’d look at my process for this novel and how it differed from others.

Writing Process for Novels Vary Widely

  • Writing process varies. First, my process was different for this novel. I find this to be always true, that what worked for one novel, won’t work for the next. In general the steps are the same, but I spend more time on one step, or do them in different orders.
  • Compensate for weakness. I did some evaluation of my novel ideas, works-in-progress novels, failed novels, and successful novels. I am a very private person; I’ll post information all day long, but rarely will I post anything personal. Frankly, it’s none of your business. Unfortunately, I carry that attitude over to my novels and the most common response is that “I failed to be engaged by the characters.” Of course. It’s none of your business!

    So, I went looking for ways to improve the emotional life of my characters and found several helpful books and ideas on a character’s emotional arc.

  • Find software to support needed improvement. One suggestion on emotional arc was to use index cards to plot, writing ideas for one scene per card. Then, turn the card OVER and on the back, write the character’s emotional state during the scene. In other words, plan the character’s emotional arc.

    I’ve used many different ways of plotting and I’ll tell you, never has index cards worked for me. I’ve used spreadsheet plotting and I like it very much. So, I simply added a column for the emotional state of the characters. It did work, but somehow, it didn’t seem to get me moving through the story well.

    Enter YWriter, a free program that helps you plan and organize a novel. This time, since I wanted to do a better job of planning, especially the characters’ inner lives, YWriter was fabulous. It has logical and helpful screens that lay out the scenes, plots, who is present in the scene, setting, and I even found a place on the character tabs to add in the emotional reactions.

    ywriter screenshot (Click to enlarge screen shot.)

    After planning, YWriter has screens where you can actually write the novel, in a pared down word processor (import/export is easy in rtf file formats, compatible with any word processor).

    I found that part of my process stayed the same. I plan and plan, then write, only to find that about halfway through, I have to stop and replan, because the writing has changed so much. Halfway through this novel, I stopped and had to replan. But this time, it seemed too tedious to go back and update every screen in YWriter; I abandoned the program and went back to my word processor alone, with occasional reference back to the YWriter plot.

  • YWriter was a good experience for me and I’ll probably use it again, because it allowed me to organize so much in one centrally located file. Will I use it next time? I don’t know. I may go back to spreadsheet plotting. But I know I was glad to expand my novel writing tool box with this great program.

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