The Mirror Moment – James Scott Bell

My first introduction to the importance of the midpoint of a story was in a workshop given by Michael HaugeHe described it as The Point of No Return, both in the external plot and the internal development of the character.  Internally, it’s the moment when the character realises he’s closer – fractionally – to the person s/he will be at the end of the story than s/he was at the beginning. Externally, it’s the moment when the story has to go forward in a particular direction. There’s no going back.

For example, in the movie Dante’s Peak, the midpoint combines both these moments in a very clever scene. In the external plot, we’re told that the sign the volcano will definitely blow is when sulphur gets into the water system. In the internal plot, since his girlfriend was killed several years ago, the Pierce Brosnan character has been unable – or unwilling – to become involved in another relationship. At the exact midpoint of the movie, Pierce Brosnan returns from a date with the Linda Hamilton character. It’s his first date since his girlfriend died, showing that he’s finally willing to take a second chance on love. They’re about to share a kiss when her young son comes downstairs and asks for a glass of water. When they turn on the tap, the water is tainted by sulphur.  We now know the volcano must blow.

Open Pride and Prejudice about half-way through and you’ll find the scene where Darcy proposes to Elizabeth in the most pompous fashion. Of course she turns him down and tells him exactly why she’s rejecting him, particularly for his treatment of Mr. Wickham. The next day, having taken her comments to heart, Darcy returns and gives Elizabeth a letter, acknowledging his pride and putting her right on Wickham.  Reflecting on the letter and her own prejudice in the next chapter, she admits, ‘Till this moment, I never knew myself.’  (In fact, when I opened my copy of P&P from my university days, I discovered I had underlined those lines and written – moral climax of book.)

James Scott Bell calls this Midpoint in the internal story The Mirror Moment. The moment (not a scene) when: The character is forced to look at himself. As if in a mirror, only it’s a reflection of who he is at that moment in time. Who am I? What have I become? What do I have to do to regain my humanity? Sometimes, it’s the character looking at the odds. How can I possibly win? It looks like I’m going to die—physically or spiritually. Now what am I supposed to do?

Sometimes, James Scott Bell says, it can be a moment when he actually looks in a mirror and sees – really sees – himself.

This mirror moment can also been illustrated in movies – sometimes literally. I’ve just been watching a great 3 part series on movie music called Sound of Cinema: The Music That Made The Movies.  In it, composer David Arnold talks about the challenge of writing the music for the reboot of the James Bond movies starring Daniel Craig. He describes the first in the series, Casino Royale, as an ‘origin’ tale of how Bond becomes the spy we know and love.  Because of that, he decided he couldn’t use the famous John Barry theme in full until the final scene, but would use snippets throughout to show Bond’s development into the character we have come to know.

And one of these scenes was when Bond, in his first tailored tux, looks at himself in the mirror. I mentioned this to some of my writing friends and wondered if there was any chance the scene happened in the middle of the film. My friend, screenwriter Carol Mulholland, pulled the script off the internet. Taking into consideration scenes that were never shown, the mirror scene happens… at the midpoint of the script.

So, there you have it.  In a book or in a movie, the mirror moment can, literally, be the moment when the character sees himself as who he is – or is becoming – in a mirror.

 

‘WAS’ is a four-letter word… or is it?

According to Michael Hauge, the job of the filmmaker is to elicit emotion in the audience. That responsibility holds equally true for the fiction writer. Our readers want to share in our characters’ journeys, experiencing in a visceral way their joy and despair, fear and courage, trust and betrayal etc.

As writers, we’re told the most effective way to do this is to ‘show’ our stories rather than ‘tell’ them. A simple technique to ‘show’ is to use active, rather than passive, voice.

Passive voice – telling – holds the reader at arm’s length, and merely informs.

Active voice – showing –  engages the reader, eliciting emotion in both reader and character.

One of the biggest culprits of passive voice?

Was.

It might only be a three letter word, but the writer must treat it with the same respect as its four-letter cousin.  Rely on was too frequently and your writing will lose its power.

The Argument AGAINST ‘was’:

Take this simple phrase:  He was walking.  ‘Was’ plus an —-ing verb is as passive as it gets, and is on the ‘No, no, no, no, no!’ self-editing checklist for many publishing companies.  It’s boring and very rarely elicits emotion in either character or reader.

He walked – is a little better, but it still doesn’t tell the reader much.

Now try these for size. He strode. He strolled. He sauntered. He paced. He plodded. He shuffled. He waddled. He marched. He meandered. He slogged.

As a reader, can’t you now see a picture in your head of how – exactly – the character ‘was walking’? Doesn’t that image suggest the emotion the character is feeling? And now don’t you want to use that other three-letter-word ‘Why?’ to ask why the character is feeling that way?

Get your reader to ask ‘Why?’ and you’ve engaged him. You’ve elicited an emotion – at the very least, one of curiosity. And curiosity is good, because it makes the reader ask, “What happens next?” and turn the page to find out!

The Argument FOR ‘was’:

It’s often suggested that during our final edit, we plug was into our search option and eliminate its every use.  That’s a great idea, but do remember that ‘was’ does – sometimes – have a place in our stories.

Where?

In character dialogue, especially when he or she is passing on information. ” You know, she was telling me the other day…”  “I heard she was going into the army.” “There was a sale at the shops downtown.”

And there is an argument to be made that too much showing can adversely affect the pace of a story. Think about the phrasing or pacing of a song. If the singer sings each word, each phrase, at the same volume and with the same intensity, it’s boring and turns the listener off. You need the quiet moments, the loud moments, the fast and the slow to give variety, interest and hold the listener’s attention. That’s one of the roles of ‘was‘ in your book. Sometimes you just need that moment where you want to slip in a fact or piece of incidental information without making a big deal of it.

Ah, but what about the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities? I hear you ask.  In his famous opening line, It was the best of times, it was the worst of timesDickens uses the word ‘was’ ten times.  That’s right, ten times!

As always, whenever there’s a rule, it can be broken. But it’s not something I suggest you try to emulate. Dickens’ effectiveness has everything to do with the poetic nature of his introduction and the fact that he was a genius. That’s not the case for most of us.

So how many times is it okay to use ‘was‘ in your story. Is there a ‘magic’ number?

Check out the  links below and see how these best-selling authors deal with this simple three letter word.

(Disclaimer:  I’ve taken all these examples from the internet and am assuming they are genuine and error free.)

Hunger Games/Suzanne Collins:

Chap One:      5,187 words           was x22

Twilight/Stephanie Meyer:

Chap One:       6,783words         was x195

Harry Potter/JK Rowling:

Chap One:      4588 words             was x92

Chap Five:      6,579 words            was x92

Chap 13:        3,189  words             was x49

Chap 16:        6,432 words              was x75

Pride and Prejudice/Jane Austen:

Chap One:      847 words                was x8

Chap Two:      796 words                 was x1

Sherlock Holmes/Study in Scarlet/Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

Chap One:      2,771                          was x28

Carnal Innocence/Nora Roberts:

Prologue:        1,539                         was x31

Chap One:      6,917                          was x118

Everything I know about writing… Part Two

Most writers can usually come up with a great beginning to a story and a cracking end, it’s all that muddy stuff in the middle that’s the problem. Yes, yes, I’d read all about three act structure, rising action blah-blah-blah, but I just wasn’t getting it.  And then I happened to go to a workshop given by Michael Hauge.  He described structure in a very particular way, and…  Ping!  ON went the lightbulb.

All of his information is on his website and in his books – but it was his description of the important mid-point of a story that really captured my attention.  He describes the midpoint (50%) as The Point of No Return (PONR).  In an airplane, the PONR is when the plane does not have enough fuel to return to its point of origin but must complete the journey or crash. (Assuming that it’s flying over ocean with no other places to land available.)

A story consists of two journeys: The Outer Journey (plot) and Inner Journey (hero’s transformation). Once you reach the PONR, neither the plot nor the hero can go backwards.

In Dante’s Peak, Pierce Brosnan and his team come to town to investigate a rumbling volcano. He tells the mayor (Linda Hamilton) that the volcano might blow or it might not – he’ll only know for sure if sulphur leaks into the water system.  (Outer Journey/Plot.) In his personal life, his former girlfriend was killed in a volcanic eruption several years ago and he’s not had a relationship with a woman since. (Inner Journey.)

Close to halfway through the movie, Pierce takes Linda back to her house after a date.  At 50%, they kiss in her kitchen. (Not a commitment, but this is the first time he’s kissed another woman since his girlfriend died.) They’re interrupted by her son, who wants a glass of water.  When he turns on the tap, guess what he finds?  That’s right, sulphur.  The mountain is going to blow.  In both outer and inner journey, they’ve reached the PONR.  There is no going back for mountain or man.

But that’s what works in movies.  What about books?  Literature?

Jane Austen is one of the most accomplished and beloved authors of all time, and I doubt she ever read a How-to writing book in her life.  Her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, is about a man who must overcome his pride, and a woman who must overcome her prejudice.  Open the book halfway through (or check out the 6 part BBC TV series at the end of episode 3 and beginning of episode 4) and what do you find?  Darcy proposes to Elizabeth – the most insulting proposal ever – and is shocked when she, quite rightly, refuses him. With what she knows about him, she vows he’s the last man she’d ever marry.  His pride several dented, Darcy returns home to write Elizabeth a letter in which he acknowledges that some of the things she accused him of are true, but he also puts her right on some of her mistaken beliefs.  On receiving the letter Elizabeth then begins to question her prejudices.  This couple still have a long way to go before the story is over, but from this point on, neither is able to regard the other – or themselves – in the same light as before.

The PONR is a powerful tool in structuring your story.  Now click on Michael Hauge’s website and check out what he has to say about Opportunity, Change of Plans, and Major Setback.

Happy writing.

Everything I know about writing… Part One

Everything I know about writing I learned from two sources.  The Alberta Romance Writers’ Association (ARWA) and Michael Hauge.

ARWA is a wonderful writing organisation. If you want to learn about the craft of writing, this is where to do so.  Established in Calgary twenty-six years ago by the writer Judith Duncan, it remains one of the most successful writing organisations in Canada.

Still, when I tell people I belong to ARWA, they sometimes give me ‘that’ look.  You know the one.  It’s the expression that says – You wouldn’t catch me dead reading one of ‘those’ books.   (Which doesn’t exactly ring true because 80% of all books sold in North America are romance novels, so somebody has to be reading them.)

I have to wonder what it is that makes people so embarrassed about the idea of reading – or writing – a love story.  No other genre comes in for such ridicule.  (Western, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Who-dunits.)  It makes me question whether or not we really believe in that famous quote,  “No man ever said on his deathbed, ‘I wish I had spent more time in the office.’”   But I think we do.  Remember Hugh Grant’s line from the beginning of Love Actually, where he recalls that all the messages sent from the twin towers on that fateful day were messages of love?

I’ll be honest, I joined ARWA with the notion of scribbling a few romance books, making some money, and then going on to write ‘real’ novels.    I mean, how hard could it be?

Very hard, as it turns out.

Before the reader even cracks open the front cover of a love story she knows how it’s going to end. This is unlike any other genre and means the romance author must be highly accomplished to keep the reader engaged with her characters and story through 50,000, 85,000, or 100,000 words.  To do that, one needs a thorough understanding of plot, character, conflict, structure, theme, POV, voice, dialogue, tension, outlines, synopsis, etc.  Which is where ARWA comes in.

For twenty-six years, ARWA has offered monthly classes in all aspects of the craft of writing.  They’ve hosted conferences and brought in writers, agents and editors from all over North America.  For the last two years, they’ve hosted a panel discussion at the When Words Collide Conference in Calgary.  This year, two of ARWA’s members, Sarah Kades and Lorraine Paton are presenting a three hour workshop on Creating Sexual Tension.  This workshop is for all writers, not just romance writers. Some of the most memorable/iconic moments in ‘non-romance’ books/movies are the relationships between the characters.  Think John Book and Rachel in Witness.  Han Solo and Leia in Star Wars.  Hawkeye and Cora in Last of the Mohicans. Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca.

I’ve known Sarah and Lorraine for several years.  Both are intelligent and passionate writers and teachers of the craft. Their upcoming workshop is not to be missed. I’m going to register right now.  Why don’t you join me?

http://www.whenwordscollide.org/spec_workshop.php

Ooops.  I seem to have run out of time. I’ll tell you about Michael Hauge tomorrow.