Thursday, June 28, 2012


In my post below I talked about feel and tone. These are important concepts in writing, as they are in film-making and in music. You can use tone to empower a scene or sequence with a deeper reasonance. By arranging the tone to fit the context, or by seeding in momentary clashes in tone to have that clash deepen the effect.

In this video of the 1987 classic 'Glad I'm not a Kennedy' by Shona Laing, (directed by Bruce Sheridan) there is a great use of tones throughout, both in tones to match context and to clash with it.

The visual tone for most of the clip is austere: the singer is garbed in dark colours, the visual tones black and white, sepia, or a very leached colour bordering on monochrome. There are images of hard surfaces, steel staircases, concrete buildings. Even the scenes in natural landscapes have a windswept, windworn feel. This works in well with the archival footage which was shot on black and white film stock.

This works in well with the song's musical tone (melody and lyrics) which is sombre in both style and context (John F Kennedy was shot dead at the age of 46 in 1963.) 

There are however key moments where there is a (likely) deliberate clash of tones. Particularly the scenes in full colour (the only ones in the clip) taken from the Kennedy family's home movies. It is these moments that make this a great clip. The full colour and its attendent sweetness and breath of life deepens the emotional response, because of the clash between tones, and because of the terrible knowledge we have of the character's fate. The very simple moment at 1:24 with JFK crossing the road with John Jr is heartbreaking, because of the knowledge we have that both JFK and John Jr (after this clip was made) died young.

Sometimes in storytelling a sudden, brief injection of a tonal clash can have great effect. A sombre image in the midst of a seemingly joyous scene (a boy standing alone in the background, isolated for a second from the foreground of a group of children playing). Sometimes a joyous image in a sombre background (a butterfly above a barren desert floor) can trigger an internal clash of tone in the reader and deepen the resonance. Poets do this, film makers too. It's another tool you can use in your writing.

Subtleties in characterisation

This painting by New Zealand artist Sofia Minson demonstrates some interesting points about characterisation.

  • what you don't bother to show is as important as what you do show
  • that images and stories take us somewhere in our heads, a place of connection or conflict
  • that you can manipulate the feel of a piece by the tones you use
  • that you don't need to strive for an absolutely clear understanding, sometimes a hint, a series of hints, is enough
What you don't bother to show

Note how the edges of the painting around the character's face blur and fade into nothing. Sometimes background information is valuable, sometimes a singular focus - if only for a moment - gives intensity and resonance. Pick your moments to bring out background detail; and pick your moments to let it fade

Where images and stories take us

This is one of the key facets of storytelling (prose, poetry, dance, art, music etc) and one of the key reasons it exists as a concept and a practice in the first place. It makes us ask questions of the character, of their world, ask what resonance their world has to ours. Is a single character's struggle representative of a universal struggle. Will my character's lives reflect other lives

Feel and tone

Musicians have used this forever. You can take a jaunty tune in a major key and slow the tempo and switch it to a minor key and the same words will have a different kind of resonance. Your emotional reaction will skew the words, take them and you somewhere else. The image above in monochrome would not be remotely the same in full colour, even if all the other components (angle, line, distance, perspective). You can write minor key scenes by adjusting the voice, focusing on greyscale images. You can then let it small dots of colour, like the first new green shoots of spring on trees

No need for completion

When we talk about rounding out characters and characterisation, remember it's not a search for completion. Some things can be left ambiguous, deliberately incomplete. Readers approach texts with their own context and emotional baggage and needs so will always see things a little differently to what you might intend. I can't read exactly what's in the character's eyes in the painting above. Compassion, curiosity, strength, need? Each viewer/reader will see both the text and their own (often unconsciously) implanted meaning. That's one of the beauties of storytelling. Go as far as you can, then step away and leave space for the audience to make meaning.


I was working with a writer earlier recently who spoke about a first person narrative she was writing and how it began to feel like it was trapping her. Her characterisation was developing well but: she was bringing out the character's backstory piece by piece (rather than dumping a block of it in exposition), and she was also getting some sense of the character's conflicts by listening to their dialogue in their relationship scenes with others. (Her lover, her co-workers, her family.) But with all that sound writing practice the character was feeling one-dimensional.

Sometimes a jolt in perspective can help here. As an exercise, switch to a narrative in first person POV from one of the other characters in your protagonist's life. Set up a dialogue scene and give it some attitude and edge. A flashpoint of conflict, a moment of covert conflict. Think of unfinished business (backstory) in your protagonist's life and design a real-time scene to confront them with it, try and bring it out. But focus on the other character's POV. What does your protagonist do with their body (their gestures, their eyes, the tone of their voice.) What do they let slip out in their words? Turn the tables on them. Challenge them, read their responses from the outside. Sometimes our characters in First Person POV enlist the author as part of their natural cloaking mechanism. We need to break beyond that, to achieve a rounded characterisation.

Don't try and achieve this kind of insight with straight telling, it's always a lesser option. Eg. 'And I knew then I'd always resented my mother...' etc. Bring that kind of conflict out in gesture, in dialogue that circles then pincers, in passive aggressive responses. You're not writing an encyclopedia, with an aim to get information across as quickly as possible.  You're looking for insight and revelation, for uncovering.

So when constructing character in First Person, consider an exercise where you switch to someone else's perspective to jolt some new understanding from your protagonist. It's better to do it in another first person POV, rather than third person, as in third person your character might still control your perspective so you don't learn anything new. When you've got some critical insights, feed that back into your main narrative, in first person from your protagonist's POV.

The photograph above looks like a shot of mars, jupiter and venus, maybe from somewhere in the red center of Australia, or Arizona, in a dusty sunset. It isn't. The image is taken from Mars and one of those little starry dots is the earth.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

How to make more sales with your website

Writers are often frustrated in how to make more sales of their books and e-books. It's all about numbers of viewers on your site. If you've made 4 sales this month and you've had only 4 people visit your site, then that's a fantastic (but unlikely) result. You'll never make more sales unless you can get more viewers.

The secret of making more sales is to have a great site with good content. Jocelyn Watkin talks about how to attract people to your website, keep them coming back for more and create your own community of interested buyers.