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Write with Voice like The Hunger Games

We read fiction because we seek an emotional experience. A novel or short story conveys emotion in three ways: through description, dialogue, and voice. The last is the hardest to understand, but writers who evoke emotion through voice often create an addicting reading experience. It is essential to learn to write with voice, because when we like the voice a writer employs and the emotions it evokes, we love hearing it in our head and are compelled to keep reading.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins did this for me. The moment I opened the book, I was no longer reading words on a page. I was listening to a human voice paint images and feelings. Since the book is written in the first person, voice is natural byproduct; but there are
certain stylistic qualities to the voice that make it evocative. Check out the following passage, where the protagonist, Katniss, talks about her cat:

Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he’s a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.

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So what makes the voice in the above passage, and the entire novel, so strong?

1. A real human being is speaking, not your English teacher. When we speak, we often speak in fragments and disregard the rules of grammar. Notice the second sentence has no verb, and thus is a fragment. Still, it is clear, and does not draw attention to itself. If you are going to be ungrammatical at times, make sure both are the case. The simple yet colorful vocabulary and the varied sentence structures also resemble how a person would speak a story, not just write one.

2. The voice creates images (and other sensations). A common problem with first person stories is rambling. Writers fixated with trying to create the impression of natural speech tend to allow their protagonists to ramble about their opinions. Collins makes sure her protagonist speaks in images, sensations, and actions – incasing opinion in between. Notice how the image of the cat is evoked in our mind, using words that connote the protagonists feelings toward the cat. The cat isn’t just ―ugly,‖ its eyes are ―the color of rotting squash (image)‖ and ―it hates her (opinion).‖ When strong images surround the protagonist’s feelings, the reader’s emotions are evoked.

3. The voice flows. The only way to know how to create flow is to develop an ear for it by reading. In general, flow is created by varying sentence and paragraph structure. Starting too many sentences and paragraphs with the same word, having them be the same length, with the same number of clauses destroys flow because it draws attention to the pattern of the words. You never want to draw attention to the words; the reader’s attention should always be on the music of the voice and the images and sensations the voice is creating. Notice how short and abrupt sentences are intermixed in the above example. ―She hates me‖ comes after several long sentences. ―He has stopped hissing at me‖ ends the paragraph perfectly because of its succinctness.

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CREATIVE WRITING TIP: Even if you write in third person, everything still applies. When editing your third person story, try to hear the POV character’s voice narrating, and even replace ―he or she‖ with ―I‖ in your head for full effect. It definitely helps get out of the ―English teacher‖ mindset.

The reader should be dreaming the words, lost in the story, and voice is a key component of inducing this dream. So, like The Hunger Games, learn to write with voice and make your readers dream!

Write a Jaw Dropping Ending like Inception

Inception is a deeply flawed movie. It has an overly convoluted and bloated beginning sequence that throws you into the action without telling you anything about the characters or the scenario. It has a middle that’s so complicated you need a flowchart to make any sense of it. I remember being disappointed with the movie as I sat in the theater, watching snowmobile gun battles and anti-gravity hand-to-hand combat, wondering which of the plethora of random dreaming rules was at play and why.

So why is this deeply flawed movie ranked the sixth best film of all time by 250,000 voters on IMDB? Because when you rate a movie, you usually do it after the credits roll, after youíve experienced the ending. And Inception has a great ending, or rather, one of the best endings of any motion picture ever.

In truth, it is endings that really matter, that leave you with the ultimate impression of how good or bad a work of fiction is. So what makes Inception’s ending so good?

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1. It poses a question that is deep on every level of the story: character-wise, plot-wise, and thematically. And it leaves you, the viewer, the interpret and answer this question. What you believe happened not only determines your view of the protagonist and his journey, but your view on some facet of human nature. It is deeply profound, in every way.

We consume fiction because we seek meaning, and endings should be the point in the story where meaning hits hardest. If you believe Cobb is still trapped in an illusion, then what does that say about man’s yearning to escape reality?

2. The final second of the movie is also its highest point of tension. This is called a cliff-hanger, and often it can leave viewers annoyed. In this case, it leaves viewers satisfied, because it feels perfect given the theme of the story: what is real? You decide, and then talk about it among your friends.

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Also, the cliff-hanger works because it prompts the viewer to analyze and rewatch the movie to find the answer to the final question; and the movie is perfectly plotted to provide no clear answer, meaning people will be debating it forever.

3. It is disguised as denouement. Denouement is the part of the story that comes after the climax, which is intended to provide emotional relief from all the tension and portray what happens to the characters as a result of the story. Kind of like a sailing off into the sunset happy-ending moment. In Inception, it appears Cobb has achieved his goal, and is about to live happily ever after with his children. And then, we get the infamous final seconds with the spinning top. As soon as we start to feel some emotional relief, that top starts spinning, and tension flares up in our hearts. The contrast of the lull in tension, followed by a sharp stab of tension that continues even after the credits have rolled, is extremely satisfying.

Not all endings have to be structured this way, but you’d do well to keep these storytelling techniques from Inception in mind when plotting your story’s final moments, so you too can write a great ending.

Why Dr. House is an Unforgettable Protagonist

Here’s what makes one of televisions best dramas so good – an unforgettable main character. A compelling protagonist is the most important element of any story, because it’s the means by which you experience the story. The audience assumes the identity of the protagonist, vicariously experiencing life through him or her.

Dr. Gregory House, from the show House, is such a great character to vicariously be due to three things. He is exceedingly eccentric, identifiable, and sympathetic.

An eccentric character is one with a ton of quirks that make him or her unlike any other character in the story, and unlike any character we’ve seen before in fiction. To illustrate how House is one of the most eccentric characters on TV, I’ll list some of his quirks:

  • VISUAL: Wears a dress coat over a t-shirt, with gym shoes, to the hospital where he works.
  • VISUAL: Uses a cane due to a limp, often with an intense design
  • PERSONALITY: He’s a jerk, makes fun of his co-workers and patients in creative ways.
  • PERSONALITY: Appears to take very little seriously, including the suffering of others.
  • PERSONALITY: He objectivities women without any shame (often overused, but for House it works).
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House

The audience wants to be someone interesting, who stands out, because ultimately, it’s something we all desire for ourselves. Which brings me to the quality of being identifiable.

An identifiable character is one who is intensely motivated to achieve a certain goal, excels at what he does, and has both flawed and heroic traits.

No one is more motivated than House to solve a given case, and he’ll stop at nothing to cure a patient, even if he has to defy his superiors and colleagues. Even if he has to risk his own job and happiness. He’s obsessed with his goal, and that’s how a main character ought to be.

And solving cases is something House excels at, to the extent that even his enemies have no choice but to consider him brilliant. A main character should excel at what they do, because again, we each have a desire to be great at something. Because House has such a brilliant mind, the cases thrown at him have to be incredibly difficult to challenge him, which makes every episode a tense struggle.

House struggles because he is exceedingly flawed. Everything he does seems to bring him unhappiness, and he sabotages his own relationships. Because he is so obsessed with his goal, he tends to ignore and belittle others in his drive to solve cases. He’s also a vicodin addict, which further humanizes the brilliant doctor.

But despite his flaws, he has several heroic traits. House always stands stubbornly upon the truth, even if the truth is hard to digest. And most important, when all is said and done, he saves dozens of lives every season when no one else could.

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Now onto what I believe is at the heart of what makes House so compelling – he suffers. As a result of being so obsessed with solving cases, and in turn saving lives, he ignores the drug addiction and relationship aversion that ultimately makes him an incredibly unhappy person. Plus, he is crippled, which provides an immediate visual of his suffering. By seeing House suffer, we sympathize with him, which makes us root for him. Our emotional connection to House means we want to see him succeed, and see him happy. It is emotional investment that forces us to keep watching.

Another way to put it, House is the character on the show with the most uniqueness, the most motivation, and one who suffers the most. That’s how all protagonists should be. It’s well known that his character is based off Sherlock Holmes, which is another proof that this classic formula works every time. Get these three facets right, and you’ll be creating unforgettable characters, which is why most of us love stories.

What the Egyptian Revolution can Teach us about Storytelling

Published February 13, 2011

For the last three weeks, I’ve been living on Egyptian time. The human drama and the twists and turns of this incredible conflict transfixed myself and millions of others, who stayed glued to their Al-Jazeera feeds as Egyptians rioted to topple their thirty year dictator. I literally woke when Egyptians woke, ate when Egyptians ate, and slept when Egyptians slept, intent not to miss a single moment of one of the most enthralling dramas in living memory.

Life mimics art, and art mimics life. What made the toppling of Hosni Mubarak such compelling news is the way it resembled a drama. Namely, it had characters with high stake goals, surprises, complexity, and a resolution — and no one had to suspend disbelief to enjoy any of it. Let’s go into depth:

Every story focuses on the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist – in this case, the pro-democracy protestors versus Hosni Mubarak. The protestors had a clear goal: bring the dictatorship that has oppressed them down. Hosni Mubarak and his regime also had a clear goal: stay in power. Because Egypt is the center of the Arab world, and change there not only affects its 80 million citizens but every country in the region, the stakes were high. Victory for the protestors could mean greater freedom for all the people of the Middle East, while Mubarak staying in power would only reassure the region’s tyrants, and this added an epic sense of history to the conflict.

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And this conflict was full of surprises, with many twists and turns, the protestors staunch in their resolve to bring Mubarak down, and Mubarak staunch in his resolve to stay. The dictator’s first move was to dispatch thousands of police to douse the riots, which only emboldened the protestors. When the protest grew into the millions, Mubarak appeared on TV and offered a host of surprising concessions, including that he would not run for re-election. But the pro-democracy supporters continued protesting, because their goal hadn’t been met. And then, in one of the most shocking things I’ve ever witnessed live on TV, Mubarak sent plainclothes police to fight street battles with the protestors using rocks and knives. It was incredible to watch these plainclothes police, some on horseback and camels, launch themselves at the protestors. While the pro-democracy supporters never wavered from their tactic of non- violent resistance, Mubarak used a variety of surprising strategies. You can’t predict life, and you shouldn’t be able to predict good fiction.

Because this is the real world, there’s going to be inherent complexity. Aside from Mubarak and the protestors, there were other major actors involved, such as the Egyptian military and the United States. During the conflict, it was often pondered who the military would support, and whether Barack Obama would ally with the protestors. The complexity became apparent when the military made statements that indicated they backed the people, but acted in a way to defend the regime. It was clear that while the military did not want to erode their popularity with the people, they were comfortably in power anyway and didn’t desire a change of the status-quo. The best political thrillers will mimic the complexity of a standoff such as this, which gives them an aura of authenticity necessary to make fiction believable.

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Many things in life don’t have a resolution, but this did. The Israel-Palestine conflict has been going on for seventy years, and we’re all jaded from it. The Egyptian Revolution, on the other hand, started and ended in seventeen days. The night before he stepped down, Mubarak appeared on TV as defiant as ever, stating he was the father of the Egyptian people and would not be told to go. You could feel the situation reach a climax as millions more took to the streets the very next day. A few hours after the largest Friday prayer in Egyptian history, Mubarak finally resigned. The catharsis was incredible. After seventeen days of intense, high stakes, and surprising conflict, a resolution had arrived. The protestors had won, and their jubilation was indescribable.

After suffering for decades under the boot of various dictators, it took the Egyptian people only seventeen days of struggle to win their freedom. In life, struggles don’t always pay off, but fiction has to provide hope that struggles are worth it and that people can change their lives in meaningful ways. We hoped and hoped it would end well for the protagonists in Egypt, and it did, and this is also the hope of every reader who picks up a book, and of anyone struggling for something.