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