Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How-To Author Brandilyn Collins

Welcome to the How-to Author Series hosted by Five Scribes. Today's featured How-to author is the fabulous Brandilyn Collins. Post a comment today and you may win: Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn Collins or a Lecture Packet from me, Margie Lawson.

A big thank you to Brandilyn Collins for joining us today. She'll drop by the blog several times to respond to posts. With housekeeping out of the way, how about some Factoids and Funtoids about Brandilyn Collins!


  • Best-selling novelist known for trademarked Seatbelt Suspense Trademarked ® tagline

    "Don't forget to b r e a t h e..."

  • Appeared on the Phil Donahue and Leeza shows for her first book (true crime) A Question of Innocence.
  • Awards include the ACFW Book of the Year (three times), Inspirational Readers' Choice and Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice.
  • Now working on her 20th book!!!
  • Popular teacher at writers' conference.
  • Lives in two homes -- in the California Bay Area and Northern Idaho.
  • Makes herself a latte every morning -- better than Starbucks!
  • Started college at 16.
  • Married to the best husband in the world.
  • Sickness times aside, has jogged five miles a day (win Sundays off) for more than 20 years.
Getting into Character Reviews...

"One of this year's best books on Writing." -- Writer's Digest, list of 2002

Exposure Reviews:

"High caliber suspense and engaging mystery ... Collins is a master of her craft." - Jake Chism, The Christian Manifesto

"Dynamite!... a roller-coaster thriller for the first line to the last sentence." - Dianne Burnett, fiction editor,

"Best stand-alone suspense of 2009!" - A Peak At My Bookshelf Reviews

ML: I have a multi-sticky-tabbed copy of Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors. What a fabulous how-to book! Every concept resonated with me. Let’s start with the premise. Why should novelists care about Method Acting?

BC: Method acting characterization techniques start with the inside of the character and work outward. Motivation at the soul level is all important. Who is this person? Why does he talk and act like he does? What is his major desire that drives him through this story? Actors are our first cousins. They bring characters to life on the stage; we bring them to life on the page. By looking at method acting techniques, we as writers can learn a lot. These techniques usher in new ways of looking at how to create memorable characters and plots.

ML: Of your seven secrets novelists can learn from actors, your first secret is personalizing. You state, as mentioned above, that personalized characters are built from the inside out. Could you explain part of that process?

BC: The full Personalization process is too intense to explain it all here. But in a nutshell it does build the character from the inside out. Instead of just saying something like, “Mary Doe is shy, and she has a nervous tic at the corner of her mouth,” Personalization starts with the core of the character. What are her “inner values” or core beliefs and attitudes about the world? From what experiences did these inner values come? When you get to know your character deeply enough to discover her inner values, these then give rise to personality traits such as shyness. And these traits, in turn, can give rise to outward bodily habits, such as a certain way of moving or a nervous tic. The point is that characters, as humans, should be deeply complex. If you just start throwing traits and mannerisms onto characters, they can so quickly become stereotypical and shallow. You need to dig deeper. Way deeper.

ML: Your chapter on Subtexting is incredibly rich. Can you share some guidelines regarding subtexting dialogue?

BC: Subtexted dialogue means that the words spoken do not reflect what is actually being communicated. That communication lies beneath the surface. People subtext in conversation often. Strangers do it, new friends do it, husband and wives do it. When we write dialogue “on the nose”—that is, every character says exactly what he is thinking—it sounds false. Stilted. And we miss out on portraying deeper emotions of the characters.

In short, dialogue should be subtexted when (1) the character doesn’t want to state what he’s thinking, or (2) the character doesn’t need to state what he’s thinking, because the other character already knows it (as is the case with many arguments between husbands and wives—on the surface they can be fighting about silly things, but what are they really fighting about?).

If the meaning of the dialogue isn’t in the words, but of course you want the reader to understand it, how to get it across? I use the TIME acronym: through a character’s Thought, Inflection (as in voice), Movement (of body), and Expression. The chapter on Subtexting explains in detail how to do this and uses an example of how just five ordinary words of dialogue between a husband and wife can team with meaning: “Morning.” “Morning.” “Sleep well?” “Yeah.”

ML: When you wrote ALWAYS WATCHING, were there some scenes that were difficult to write? If so, how did you use Method Acting to make your scenes stronger?

BC: What’s important in a novel, what turns the pages, are the driving questions of the story. In Always Watching, since it’s a suspense, there’s the driving question of who killed Shaley’s best friend on tour? And will Shaley be next? Another driving question comes from Shaley’s personal life: will she find out about her missing father? During the Personalization process with Shaley, my teenage daughter, Amberly, and I (we co-wrote the book) discovered an inner value of Shaley that had to do with the lack of a father. This was such an issue at the core of Shaley that it gave rise to ways of behaving, especially with her mom, who holds back the answers Shaley so desperately wants. This rift between Shaley and her mom gave a richness to the characters. Shaley loves her mom yet resents her mom. How does that kind of complexity play out in a teenager’s life?

You see, no matter the genre, even in my highly plotted, twisting Seatbelt Suspense

novels, characterization drives the story.

ML: Your section on Sentence Rhythm is packed with information writers may not find elsewhere. You addressed how to structure a passage to reflect the chaos in the scene. Could you expand this concept – and share an example?

BC: The bottom line of sentence rhythm: sentences should have the same “beat” or rhythm that you want to evoke in your readers. If you want your readers’ hearts to beat fast in a tense moment, mirror that beat with staccato sentence rhythm. Far too few novelists think in these terms. In an action sequence, sentences should be short and choppy, maybe even incomplete phrases. And avoid “ing” verbs, which have the connotation of the passage of time. Action scenes are fast--boom, bam, bam. In thoughtful, quiet scenes the sentences can be long and in complex form.

However, there’s another kind of rhythm in which the action is so intense and all-at-once that total chaos occurs, confusing the character. Here you want your readers to feel that lack of ability to hold to any steady thought. Shift abruptly into a streaming structure of sentences and phrases that reflect this confusion. It can be very effective.

In the passage below from my novel DREAD CHAMPION the streaming sentence rhythm is used in a dream sequence (therefore present tense) to evoke the horrific slow-motion, drawn out seconds the character experiences as a truck forces her boyfriend’s car into a couple of 360s before crashing into a tree.

…Her hands rising to her mouth, hair floating around her face, sticking to her tongue. Dave’s head slowly turning, his eyes drifting too late behind him to check for traffic, his head turning back. The squeal of tires against wet pavement, sounding on and one like a stuck record as their car merges onto that record, revolving, revolving, the world spinning, the tree, its bark shiny with rain, disappearing, cycling closer, disappearing, cycling closer. Nausea rising in Kerra’s stomach…

Read the last groups of phrases aloud-- disappearing, cycling closer, disappearing, cycling closer. The very rhythm of these words and their accented syllables are designed to evoke that sickening, drawn-out rhythm of whirling toward disaster.

ML: In your chapter on Coloring Passions, you share how to make scenes more emotionally vivid. In one part of this concept you talk about finding opportunities to portray the opposite of a character’s personality trait. Could you share your three- step process on how to do this?

BC: Again, this concept is hard to convey in few words. In a nutshell, this technique goes back to Personalization. The three steps are: (1) Trace a trait back to the inner value that gave rise to it, (2) Find a second inner value of your character, (3) Ask yourself in what situation could you place your character so that the second inner value conflicts with the first, thereby producing the trait’s opposite.

The point is this: human beings are complex creatures. Sometimes our behavior is just the opposite of what you’d expect. What situation would make an ultra shy character not show shyness? What might make a seemingly always confident character not confident? It’s these complexities in a personality that need to come forth in a novel. We need to show all sides of a character. However, the problem with writing a scene in which a confident character doesn’t show confidence is that the character can end up looking wishy-washy or just not well formed. But again, in life, we know these antithetical behaviors are true. So to write a scene that feels right to the reader, that truly reflects the multi-layered human condition, we need to go back to the character’s inner values before writing the scene. What might make two equally strong inner values within a character conflict with each other? What different sort of behavior will result? In this way the core of the character will come through as true to life.

ML: My next-to-last question is about the FOUR D’s in your chapter on Action Objectives. It’s a huge topic. You devoted thirty-four pages to the FOUR D’s. Could you share the FOUR D’s – and give our blog guests a few hints about each D?

BC: You’re right, another huge topic. In short: Desire, Distancing, Denial and Devastation.

Desire—what does your character WANT? The Desire should be stated very specifically using an action verb. The more specific the Desire, the more ideas you’ll get for conflict to arise to oppose that Desire. The protagonist’s Desire drives the entire story. “I want to be rich” is not a well-formed Desire. Too general. “I want to become CEO of XYZ Corporation, making $5 million a year, so that I can prove to my abusive father I can BE SOMEBODY.” That’s a specific, action-oriented Desire. Now you add conflict to each part of that Desire. Opposition to becoming CEO. The if the character becomes CEO, maybe his salary is drastically cut due to hard economic realities. Or maybe he achieves part 1 and 2, but his father still won’t acknowledge him. Or maybe he achieves all three, only to find he doesn’t NEED his father’s acknowledgment to be a whole person, etc.

Distancing—as conflicts arise, they push the character further and further off course from his direct path to fulfilling his Desire.

Denial—around the climax, when all seems lost. The character’s Desire will never be fulfilled.

Devastation—that final gotcha twist. When things can’t seem to get any worse, they do. The Denial is so turned on its head that these terrible consequences of pursuing the Desire would never have even been considered. From here your character can fight back with all he has to regain his footing.

When you’ve got the Four Ds down, you’ve got the core of your story. But the final 3 arise from the first, Desire—and that arises from WHO your character is.

ML: Here’s your final question. Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors was published in 2002. If you were writing it now, what’s one thing you’d add?

I have examples in each chapter, one from classic literature and one from modern. So naturally I’d update the modern examples. I’d probably spend even more time explaining each concept. When I teach these concepts in person, readers of Getting Into Character understand them much more than from reading them on their own. To a large extent, however, that’s because these techniques need to be applied to individual manuscripts to best understand them. Understanding conceptually is one thing. Understanding to the point of putting them to use for great writing is another.

ML: A fun postscript to my interview with Brandilyn. Always Watching has been launched with a national “Live Like a Rock Star” sweepstakes, open to ages 13-18. The Grand Prize is an $850 night on the town, including dinner for six at a restaurant of the winner’s choice and limo service. The first 200 entrants will receive a free copy of the book. Teens can go here to enter.

Thank you, Margie for bringing Brandilyn Collins to writers and readers today. And Ms. Collins, what a treat for writers and your fans!! Tune in next month, when Margie's guest Author Bob Mayer, will be promoting his How-to book -- The Novel Writer's Toolkit: A Guide to Writing Novels and Getting Published.


Edie said...

I have this book! I just took it off the shelf above my writing desk and will read it again.

This is perfect timing for the interview. I have a dramatic scene to write today, and as I read about the 4 D's, I realized what was missing from my vision of the scene. I stopped reading to scribble notes, and now I'm ready to write! Thanks!

Margay said...

This sounds like a book I should have in my reference library, too. I am one of those authors who likes to dog-ear and highlight things that are important to me and I can see this one with a lot of dog-ears!

Jess said...

Really good interview. Thanks!

Peg said...

Wow, great stuff here! Brandilyn, would you ever consider giving an on-line workshop in some of these techniques?
You talk about a shy character acting unshy in a scene or vice versa--can you give an example of how you used this technique in one of your own books?
Thanks for the wonderful interview.

AnnieP said...

During my undergraduate years I spent a great deal of time sitting in the dark at the campus theatre watching auditions. It is an amazing transformation to watch an actor pull themselves into someone else's life/body. What a clever idea to add that technique to an author's tool belt.

Donnell said...

I can't believe I don't own this book! As I uploaded Margie and Brandilyn's interview, I thought I have to have this on my keeper shelf. I disqualify myself from the drawing, but will pick this up soon.

Congratulations, Brandilyn, I don't know if I'm more amazed by the 20 books or the five miles six times a day. You're a lesson in discipline. Thank you for being here.

Peg said...

If I can ask another question--how long does it generally take you to create your characters? Do you spend months on the process or does it go more quickly once you get into it?
Do you use this process for every character or just your protag/antag?

Nancy said...

Margie and Brandilyn, thanks for the fabulous interview!

Brandilyn, I have Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors because Margie recommends it in one of the classes I took from her. Marvelous! I hope to know your precepts so well that they'll be rote.

Thanks for visiting Five Scribes, and congratulations on your every success!

Nancy Haddock

PatriciaW said...

I have this one on my birthday-mother's day-anniversary-Christmas-just because wish list. I'm thinking maybe I'd better pick up a copy myself. :)

jessi said...

Great interview. Looks like I'll be adding another book to my 'must have' list. Thanks.

JBarWriter said...

Fantabulous interview, yes I quest for your book, naturally, but I am an avid follower of your blog, your articles on writing, and with the knowledge that you have a beautiful soul. I came upon your blog, during the time you unselfishly helped Blinky St. James and her mother find a home.
With that said, you spoke in this interview of getting into characterization through method acting, working the character from inside out.
What can the draw backs be from doing this?
Let’s say, you are writing about a serial killer, and you are inside his head as you write, experiencing the emotional aspects. What do you advise the writer do, to stay focused on reality, that you aren’t a serial killer that you are only writing about one?

Peg said...

WooHoo! My library just emailed me that they've ordered this book for me! When my self-imposed ban on buying books is lifted (as in when hubby gets a new job) I will buy my own copy.

Stefanie Worth said...

This interview was very insightful. I spend a lot of time mapping out character archetypes and I can see how using acting would add even greater depth to dialogue and action. This book definitely belongs with my well-thumbed manuals on the writing craft.

Gina Welborn said...

I sooooo have to buy this book.

Thanks, Brandilynn, for sharing! The blog post alone is a keeper. Very enlightening. Like others have said, I don't know why I don't have this book already in my library.

Magnolia said...

Wow, thanks for that great post. The first Brandilyn Collins book I read was Violet Dawn and I remember the sense of anticipation, that feeling of 'uh-oh, something's coming' that I felt inside that just kept building. I devoured the book in two days and then had to get the others.

Kathy said...

Interesting blog I went straight to Amazon and Barnes & Nobles to check out the cost of the book. It sounds like just what I need to read.

Ellen said...

Wow, what an interesting post! I never thought about it before, but sure....writing is an awful lot like acting, isn't it?

Thanks again!

Shanna Swendson said...

I have got to get this book. I've been re-reading my copy of Uta Hagen's Respect for Acting from my college days and trying to think of how to apply it to writing, but it sounds like this goes even deeper.

Robin said...

Brandilyn: Just want to say what a huge fan I am! I have your Getting into Character book and it's fabulous but I also love your fiction work! Both your suspense and your women's fiction are page turners. Color the Sidewalk for Me is one of my all time favorite books!

~ Brandilyn Collins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Okay, I flunked on leaving my first comment. Trying again.

Thanks for all your responses. I just checked the Amazon page for Getting Into Character. For those of you thinking of buying GIC, Amazon has it on a really good sale right now--$10.85, regularly $15.95. Probably much cheaper than you'll find it in stores. Here's the page in a shortened URL:

Peg and JBAR Writer, I am writing my answers to your questions and will post soon. These are very good questions.

Rannza said...

Many thanks for an interesting blog.

I would like to echo Peg's question and ask if you would consider teaching an online workshop on characterization.

I have already bought Brandilyn's excellent book, so please enter me for the drawing of the lecture packet only.

Thank you

Ruth Dell
ruthdell [at] mweb [dot] co [dot] za

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Peg: “You talk about a shy character acting unshy in a scene or vice versa--can you give an example of how you used this technique in one of your own books?”

Brandilyn: As a reminder of the topic, this has to do with the complexity of character, as human beings are complex creatures. Peg, an example is Paige in Violet Dawn. In the very first chapter we see her alone and in pain. She SO wants to belong, to make friends in the new town she’s moved to. However, in immediate subsequent chapters we see her lying, covering up, running from her mysterious past. Are these behaviors going to win her friends? Friendship requires mutual trust. Yet there is nothing trustworthy about her. Ironically her own untrustworthiness arises from her inner value that no one is to be trusted. At the same time her wanting to belong arises from the inner value of desperately needing love, which she has never truly experienced from anyone. One trait fights against another.

(This first chapter of Violet Dawn can be read here:

Or, Peg, as a more direct example (since you asked about one trait turning on its head), look at Darell Brooke in Dark Pursuit. He is selfish and helps no one but himself, and is very angry at his estranged granddaughter, Kaitlan. He’s angry, because he’s hurt. He’s hurt because he loved her, and she betrayed him. Yet when Kaitlan flees to him for help against a killer, he helps her. Why? Because Darell also desperately wants to reclaim his position as the international King of Suspense by writing another bestselling novel (which he can no longer do because of a brain injury). Kaitlan’s plight gives Darell what he desperately needs—a PLOT. By helping her plot against a real life killer, he hopes to get plot points for his own book, which he’s been stuck on for a year or so. All along the way, even as Darell tries to help Kaitlan (because he really does love her, even though he’s angry/hurt), these two opposing desires/traits fight within him. When push comes to shove—when helping her would hurt his ability to gather plot points for his own book—what will he choose?

(The first chapter of Dark Pursuit can be read here:

Peg: “How long does it generally take you to create your characters? Do you spend months on the process or does it go more quickly once you get into it? Do you use this process for every character or just your protag/antag?”

Yes, more good follow-up questions. I talk in GIC about which characters to personalize. In short, you don’t have to do every character who appears, but certainly the protagonist(s) and major supporting characters.

As for how long it takes me, I can’t give you exact days because it continues to develop even as I write. Beginning Personalization does go faster with me now because I have a good handle on it. That said, I can often start writing and then something about the character surprises me. TIP: When a character surprises you, STOP. Some inner value of that character has surfaced that you didn’t know. Go back to the Personalizing process and find that inner value. Trace it up to traits and maybe even mannerisms. Or sometimes you do the inner value, but it’s must stronger than what you expected, and in a push-comes-to-shove situation, this inner value wins out, when you didn’t think it would.

In fiction, character drives story drives character drives story… This is why the actual writing can show us more about our characters, even when we thought we already knew them.

JBarWriter: “You spoke in this interview of getting into characterization through method acting, working the character from inside out. What can the draw backs be from doing this? Let’s say you are writing about a serial killer, and you are inside his head as you write, experiencing the emotional aspects. What do you advise the writer do, to stay focused on reality, that you aren’t a serial killer that you are only writing about one?”

Ah, great question! Best answer is to refer you to Secret #7 in GIC: Emotion Memory. In a nutshell—there is no emotion, including the drive to kill, that is unknown to any person. It’s all a matter of degrees. I have to write about killers all the time. How do I, a very peace-loving person, do that? Because I have it in me to kill. So do you. In the Emotion Memory chapter I promise to make killers out of my readers in 10 minutes. And it works. Have you ever stalked a fly in your kitchen because it bothered you so much? Got in your way? Did you think for one minute about the fly? Or did you just want him gone and feel totally justified because he was BUGGING you? Emotion Memory can take that human justification of killing a fly and turn it toward a person. All the emotions/rationalizations are the same.

In short, with Emotion Memory I can become any character, drawing on my own experiences, yet not lose myself in the process. Because I’m taking my human experiences and applying them to my character’s situation. I realize this sounds quite simplified in this nutshell version. When you read the concept in its entirety, it can be a real eye-opener.

BTW, intro to GIC can be read here:

~ Brandilyn

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

The comments box is cutting the URLS to excerpts I gave you. Make sure the URL you type ends in html.

~ Brandilyn

RubyCRNA said...

I'm going right out and get this book. Thank you so much for such a fact filled interview.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Thanks for the questions about teaching an online workshop about characterization. Maybe I will sometime. It would be fun. Right now my deadlines are keeping me pretty busy.

~ Brandilyn

Lynette said...

Hi Brandilyn and Margie:
Margie introduced you with such high praise in her class I feel as though I already know you. Getting Into Character - Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors is definitely on my To Buy list.
Thanks for a great blog.
Best wishes. Lynette

Karen said...

Excellent advice.

Bible Devotion Fairy said...

Glad all those years in community theater can help my writing! Great way to think of this when plotting. Thanks, Brandilyn

Alisa said...

Great interview.

I'm beginning to see why I'm struggling with a particular character. I don't have an adequate understanding of her Desire.

Many people recommended this book at FCWC. I see why!

Thanks for a chance to win it or your lecture packet!

Leslie Ann said...

Welcome to Five Scribes. Great interview, wonderful how-to book! Audra Harders, one of our scribes, recommended this book when it first came out and it's been read and re-read, tagged, underlined and dare I say, page corners folded down.

Thanks for the inspiration and information you've given us today.

~LA, the scribes screenwriter.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Thanks to all of YOU for your kindness.

~ Brandilyn

Melissa said...

Thanks for sharing these! I've orderd my copy of the book and can't wait for it to get here.

TracyM said...

Hi Brandilyn,

Thanks for taking to time to guest on this blog. You offer a really fresh perspective on how to enliven characters in realistic and vibrant ways.

Margie, thanks for recommending Brandilyn's material in your workshop. Priceless!

Margie Lawson said...

Brandilyn --

Thanks for sharing your time, expertise, and responses. You're brilliant!

Can't wait to see you here in Denver at the ACFW conference. :-)

All smiles.........Margie

johnny dangerous said...

Thanks for the insights from acting. I think it was Kirk Douglas who was once asked whether he preferred acting or writing novels. He said writing books, because in a movie he could only be one character, but in a novel, he could become them all.

Valerie Comer said...

Great interview! I'll have to get my hands on this book, I can see.

Varina M said...

I've looked forward to this interview all month, since Margie mentioned it at the end of her March class, and it was definitely worth coming to read. Last week I started making notes for a new, still vague story idea, and I had to stop several times while reading the interview today to add to my notes. Thanks for the insights about core values and the 4 D's. I too hope that someday you'll teach an online class on this subject, and that I'll hear about and be able to take it. I intend to revisit this blog regularly.--Varina M.

Janet Kerr said...

This is a great book! I have been enjoying both your works. Thanks!

Margie Lawson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Margie Lawson said...


Thanks to Brandilyn Collins for being our guest today. Dynamite interview and blog responses!

Again, I strongly recommend Brandilyn's how-to book, GETTING INTO CHARACTER, as well as her fiction. Both are stellar. ;-)



Lynette -- You won Brandilyn's book --GETTING INTO FICTION!

Varina -- You won a Lecture Packet of your choice, from me!

Lynette and Varina -- Please e-mail me at

Thanks to all of you for dropping by the FIVE SCRIBES blog.

Mark your calendar:

MAY 27th!



How-to Author

May 27th!

THANK YOU to all five of the FIVE SCRIBES for hosting my How-to Author Series. You all are the BEST!

All smiles........Margie

Margie Lawson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ansha said...

I have always thought of myself as a silent actor as I wrote out my scenes. I plan on buying Brandilyn's book! Thanks for the tantalizing tidbits and wonderful interview!